Wednesday 23 September 2015

Did George Martin really sign The Beatles?

In his 1979 book, All You Need Is Ears, George Martin recounts how in April 1962 he received a phone call from an EMI music publisher named Sid Colman*."There's a chap who's come in with a group he runs," said Colman. "They haven't got a recording contract and I wonder if you'd like to see him."

"Certainly," replied Martin, the A&R man who recorded acts for the Parlophone label at EMI, "I'm willing to listen to anything."

This was true. By 1962, Martin was best known for making novelty and comedy records with folks like Peter Sellers, but he hadn't scored a "pop" hit on his Parlophone label.

On February 13, 1962, Martin met with a gentleman named Brian Epstein who hyped a Liverpool band he was managing, The Beatles. He played Martin their audition tape, which was recorded for Decca Records which turned them down. In fact, every label, including EMI, had turned down The Beatles. The relentless Epstein was transferring the tape to disc at HMV Records on Oxford Street five days earlier when the engineer there, Jim Foy, liked what he heard and rang Colman, whom he used to work with at EMI.

HMV's flagship store at 363 Oxford Street in London in the sixties. Copyright HMV.

Martin considered the audition tape mediocre (and to be fair, it was), but he was intrigued by a "certain roughness" in the sound he hadn't encountered before and found "something tangible" that made him want to hear more. So, Martin booked The Beatles for a recording test for June 6 at EMI's studios on Abbey Road. "It was love at first sight," wrote Martin.

But is this true? Did Martin sign The Beatles after their June 6 audition?

No, according to Beatles scholar, Mark Lewisohn. In Tune In, his mammoth 1,700-page history of the group that runs through the end of 1962. Lewisohn, as Beatles fans know, is the pre-eminient Beatles scholar, the group's historian whose books over the years demonstrate a depth of knowledge and research untouched by anybody else. (And I'm writing this as a professional researcher and journalist myself.) In other words, Lewisohn knows his stuff.

According to Lewisohn (who lists his sources), The Beatles were signed to a recording contract, because Sid Colman wanted the publishing rights to the Lennon & McCartney originals, Love of the Loved, Hello Little Girl and especially Like Dreamers Do, which he had heard on the Decca audition tape, and envisioned a hit single to be paired with another original composition. But since Coleman ran an EMI publishing company, Ardmore and Beechwood, EMI had to sign The Beatles to a recording contract for Colman to secure those copyrights.

Right after he met with Epstein, Colman spoke to his right-hand man, a tireless song plugger, Mr. Kim Bennett, who also heard great promise in Like Dreamers Do. Colman, and especially the persistent Bennett, lobbied EMI's A&R men (the men who signed acts to recording contracts) to grab this Liverpool band with the weird name, but nobody cared.

The Beatles, Brian Epstein (2nd left), George Martin (4th) and EMI record executives: managing director Len Wood, behind Ringo, and chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, centre. At lunch in the EMI Manchester Square boardroom on November 18, 1963.
Then, Bennett suggested to Colman, "Why don't you go across to Len Wood and say that if EMI give us a record, we'll pay for its cost. Because it's a group, it'll be a straightforward musical production. No orchestra. We'll have got two copyrights for the next 50 years, plus maybe a royalty on the record."

Len Wood was EMI's managing director and the boss of EMI's A&R men. Colman pitched his idea, but Wood sympathetically turned him down. Oh, well. Colman and Bennett went on with other work...

Meanwhile, Martin met Epstein on February 13, but Martin didn't like the audition tape and saw no promise in his Liverpool group. Nothing came of that meeting. Zero.

Soon after, George Martin asked his boss for a raise and, astoundingly, a royalty of the records he was producing. Nobody got that at EMI, said his boss, Len Wood. The two men didn't get along. Wood, an ex-soldier, played everything by the book and refused this upstart both requests. Martin threatened to walk and Wood didn't care. No love lost.
Photo by Albert Marrion on December 17, 1961. The Beatles, with Pete Best, were still in leathers. Brian Epstein arranged this photo session and he would have been handing these publicity stills in early 1962 when he met EMI and other record companies. The suits would soon replace the leathers.

Martin needed the money, because he was having a secret affair with his secretary, Judy Lockhart Smith, yet he was already married with two young children. Sure, people had affairs in 1962, but they were socially unacceptable. To make matters worse, Len Wood was a churchgoer. When Wood somehow caught wind of Martin's affair, he had Martin by the balls. But he couldn't fire Martin, because EMI chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, liked Martin and, besides, Martin was damn good at his job.

Back to Sid Colman. He pitched Wood The Beatles idea again and this time Wood said yes. Bennett recalls, "After a short, stunned silence, I said, 'Oh? Who's gonna do it, then?' [And he said,] 'George Martin.' The Beatles record," Bennett explains, "was going to be made as a gesture to Sid, to give Sid Colman a sop. Len was going to bow to our wishes at last."

And stick it to George Martin, who had no idea what was going on until Wood ordered him to sign The Beatles. Both Ron Richards, Martin's assistant, and Norman "Hurricane" Smith, a balance engineer at Abeey Road studios (who would engineer The Beatles' records through Rubber Soul) corroborate this story. "L.G. Wood didn't approve of people having affairs," he says. "L.G. virtually ordered George to record The Beatles."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It's doubtful that The Beatles or Epstein ever knew about the roles Kim Bennett and Sid Coleman played in getting the band signed to EMI. To the best of my knowledge, George Martin hasn't responded to this version of the signing, but it's true that he was charmed by The Beatles when they met on June 6, 1962 at Abbey Road and, of course, he recorded virtually all their music.

And brilliantly so.

* I'm going with the Lewisohn spelling despite seeing variations of this spelling, such as Syd Coleman, in other books.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

The 10 best Beatles basslines

Nobody wanted to play bass in The Beatles. John, Paul and George wanted to play lead or rhythm guitar. Bass wasn't sexy. You couldn't "pull the birds" plucking a bass. So, in the early days in Hamburg, Stuart Sutcliffe (below with George) was stuck with the instrument after his bandmates urged the gifted painter to spend his winnings from an art competition to purchase a Hofner 333.
 After all, somebody needed to provide the band with a bottom end as they rocked the stages of the Kaiserkeller and the Top 10. After Stuart left The Beatles in July 1961, he passed his Hofner to a reluctant Paul who eventually bought his own bass.

 Today, we identify Paul with his violin-shaped Hofner and adore his exceptional playing on so many songs. (But let's not forget George subbing for Paul in a few exceptions, such as She Said, She Said.) Here, in our humble opinion, are the ten finest bass lines in The Beatles' canon:

Click each song title to hear the isolated bass track of that song.

Though John and Paul wrote the lead-off song to Rubber Soul, George suggested that the band play the lead and bass guitars almost in unison, directly influenced by Donald "Duck" Dunn's stellar bass performance on Respect by Otis Redding which was charting in mid-1965. After the lead guitar opens the song, George lays down an unmistakably funky bass line that lets the other instruments and Paul's vocal fall into a solid groove.

Revolver showcases Paul's bass like no other album before or after. There are four reasons why the bass sound is so rich on The Beatles' seventh album: Motown's influence (its legendary session bassist James Jamerson), Stax Records (Donald "Duck" Dunn), Paul's new Rickenbacker 4001S bass, and Geoff Emerick. Emerick became The Beatles' recording engineer at Abbey Road, the guy in the white lab coat who placed the mics around the instruments and twiddled the knobs on the recording console. "I was getting frustrated listening to American records like the Motown stuff," recalls Emerick, "because the bass was a lot stronger than we were putting on our records." Emerick remedied this deficiency by basically turning a studio speaker into a giant microphone to capture Paul's monster bass lines (the technicals are detailed in Emerick's memoirs, Here, There and Everywhere). Listen to the mono version of Revolver and the Paperback Writer/Rain single. The songs rival James Brown in sheer heaviness in the bottom end. Paul deserves full credit for the infectious bass line that grips Taxman. It's perhaps the most recognizable bass line in the Beatles' catalogue and was good enough for Beck to copy in The New Pollution 30 years later. Paul's bass dominates Paperback Writer and Rain so thoroughly that the needle nearly jumps off the grooves of the vinyl on your turntable. Both the released and alternate versions (right channel of take 2) of And Your Bird Can Sing showcase Paul's melodic bass lines.

It's hard choosing one song off Sgt. Pepper that demonstrates Paul's bass-playing prowess. The recording process on this album was a little different, in that Paul laid down his bass part last, after the rest of the instruments and vocals were recorded. This perspective afforded him the opportunity to shape his basslines which were invariably melodic yet meaty. Lovely Rita and A Day In The Life also feature outstanding work by Paul.

The track that benefits the most from the 1999 remixes of The Yellow Submarine Songbook CD is Hey Bulldog. The old extremely panned stereo mix spreads the rhythm section paper thin, but the bold new remix concentrates the drums and bass, propelling those intruments to the front of the stereo picture. Ringo's drums and Paul's bass leap out the speakers like never before. Paul's fills between John's verses are full of swagger and attitude.

Credit Paul for taking John's original up-tempo Chuck Berry rocker, slowing it down considerably and adding a swampy bass lick. Like Rubber Soul, Abbey Road opens on the bass and carries the song all the way through. In the long fade out, Paul's fluttery notes over Billy Preston's organ solo is outstanding.

This bassline divides listeners: it's either too busy, threatening to distract from George's vocal, or it sweeps you in a melodic tour-de-force. I'm of the latter, and love the interplay during the guitar solo between George's guitar and Paul's bass.

To be fair, this experimental heavy rock song showcases all of the Beatles' guitars and not just Paul's bass. Like so many Beatles songs, the bass in I Want You (She's So Heavy) not only provides the bottom end, but acts as a lead guitar as well. There's as much melody in the bass as in John's rhythm guitar or George's lead.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Where In The World?

For many years, The Beatles: An illustrated Record was the discography most readily available to Beatle fans. First published in 1975, it is a chronological overview of all Beatle and solo releases until that date. While still enjoyable, and accurate for the most part, it is basic. As such, it's fine as an introduction to their UK releases. But that's also its major failing. Here at the Rowboat Syndicate, we grew up with several releases peculiar to our own countries, Canada and Australia. Some of the entries related to albums that were simply unavailable to us, while omitting several which were familiar.

These days, there are several discographies available to the Beatle fan who is more than just a casual listener. Here are a few:

Across The Universe:

Azing Moltmaker, a Dutch collector, regularly publishes books on The Beatles. He's written a series on the making of each album, and has commenced another on the making of each single. While I haven't read any of these, I do possess copies of Across The Universe Vol. 1 & 2.

Subtitled 'Beatles sleeves from around the world' the books contain exactly that. Unfortunately, there's little in the way of structure. The sleeves are neither ordered by year or country, and are only labeled by country of issue. There's no real information on release dates, variation notes, tracklistings or oddities.

I flick through these books randomly from time to time, enjoying the pictures that are there. The author has included some unusual pieces, such as promotional postcards, but again the selection and inclusion of these items seem random. These books are not particularly cheap, either. And with postage from Europe, it all makes for a truly expensive experience.

Moltmaker also publishes a four volume set covering EPs and singles from around the world. These appear to be more valuable to the serious fan than the ones above, but I have yet to see a volume dedicated only to album sleeves.

Beatles Worldwide:

This is more like it. A two volume set, with part one covering albums and part two covering EPs and singles. The listings are organised according to country of issue, then sorted by release date. Alternates, reissues and oddities are included, along with brief notes as required.

Christoph Maus has done an excellent job in compiling these books. (And, although I haven't seen them, a similar series for The Rolling Stones) It's well organised, appears complete, and has good, clear photos of covers and labels This is the set I return to time and time again just to read for pleasure.
Considering the size and detail included, the price is quite reasonable. But once again the postage from Europe is a killer.

Recommended for those of us who love reading about the different international releases, artwork and their variations.

The Beatles Covered:

Joachim Noske has written the masterwork on Beatles' releases. It's a heavy tome, 12" square and 800 pages long, and it appears to be thorough beyond belief. Limited to only 500, this book is unfortunately out of print. I recently emailed the author, but he has no plans for a reissue. It wasn't cheap to start with, but used copies trade for insane prices on the internet.

This is one book I would love to own.

This is one book I am unlikely to ever own.


I don't own too many vinyl bootlegs, but I'm fascinated by them. I have, however, managed to pick up a few bootleg CDs over the years, and I listen to them reasonably often.

John C. Winn is the author of an excellent series of books on the Beatles recording sessions. (Way Beyond Conpare, That Magic Feeling and Lifting Latches) He's also written Beatlegmania, a discography of bootleg releases. Chronologically listed, the four volumes display the artwork, give detailed tracklistings and notes where appropriate. Alternative covers and reissues are included, and although bootleggers are secretive by nature, Winn makes every effort to navigate the murky waters of their labels, sources and pressings. Comprising mostly vinyl, Volume 4 delves into the first of the bootleg CD releases. I'm still waiting information on future volumes in the series.

They're a light, casual read, and definitely recommended for those who love releases from the dark side of the music industry.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Unlucky Pete?

The Pete Best story has been told and retold and rehashed again and again. There has been so much speculation about what actually occurred, about who said what, and, most importantly, about the reasons he was fired from The Beatles.

I can only imagine the pain he must have felt as he was pushed out on the eve of their success, sitting at home and watching his former bandmates rise to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune. It must have been soul-destroying, especially as it was never really made clear to him exactly why he was fired. Best certainly felt betrayed, not only by John, Paul and George, but also by Ringo who replaced him. According to Best, he and Ringo had been reasonably friendly and so he was surprised Ringo accepted the job. In 1965 he attempted suicide, the pain having become too much.

There have been some reports that Epstein originally offered the job to Johnny Hutchinson, drummer for The Big Three. Hutch, as he was known, had sat in for the boys at a 1960 audition for Larry Parnes (see right) as their regular drummer was running late, but had had little to do with them since then.

Many years later Hutchinson declared, "Brian asked me to join the Beatles and I said, 'I wouldn't join the Beatles for a gold clock. There's only one group as far as I'm concerned and that's the Big Three. The Beatles can't make a better sound than that, and Pete Best is a very good friend of mine. I couldn't do the dirty on him."

I find this comment suspicious. I can accept he felt a loyalty to his own group, and I can understand how someone would have the integrity to not "do the dirty" on a friend, but considering Best was told Ringo would be his replacement while he was being fired, Hutch must already turned it down at this stage. This meant, of course, that he knew about it in advance. Yet, he chose not to inform his friend that the others were plotting behind his back.  Not only that, but he sat in with The Beatles for three dates between Best's sacking and Ringo's arrival. His loyalty to Pete Best wasn't so obvious then. Apparently Hutch despised The Beatles, and Lennon in particular, and only sat in on their Larry Parnes' audition with the greatest reluctance. Ringo, on the other hand, had played with The Beatles on numerous occasions during the preceding few years when Pete was absent. They got on well, had personalities that clicked, and Ringo had a drumming style The Beatles desired. They'd admired him for years, even when they used to see him play as far back as drummer for the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Group. I don't think there's much doubt John, Paul and George knew they wanted Ringo well before Pete was fired.

Pete Best is frequently referred to as being unlucky. This week I saw a headline on the story, 'I Could Have Been A Contender.' There's no doubt in many eyes he was unlucky, fired on the cusp of greatness. But remember, being unlucky results from unfavourable chance, not plans and schemes. And the thought he was somehow unlucky is based on the presumption that he would have lasted the distance with The Beatles anyway.

Pete Best's autobiography, Beatle!, goes to great lengths to explain exactly how much everyone loved him as a drummer, how powerful and solid he was. It states and restates just how tight he was with the other three, both musically and as friends. How much time he spent socialising with the other Beatles. There are detailed descriptions of pranks, fights and hijinks where Pete was central to the action, particularly in Hamburg, which is in complete contrast to his reputation as moody and aloof.

And while I can understand and sympathise with Pete, I found the rationalisation and justification a little bit heavy. The drummer doth protest too much, methinks.

Spencer Leigh, a Merseyside journalist and broadcaster who has gotten to know Pete Best quite well, has written The Sacking of Pete Best. The book covers a number of theories, including his drumming, his personality, his mother's pushiness, the others' envy over his popularity with the girls and a bunch of others. Of course, the book is unable to draw any firm conclusions. Fifty-three year old memories cannot be trusted, but more importantly Paul is the only one central to the action who is still alive, and he's not talking.

In 1965 Playboy published an interview with The Beatles, in which Lennon stated, "Ringo used to fill in sometimes if our drummer was ill with his periodic illness." Ringo then said, "He took little pills to make him ill." Considering the number of pills John, Paul and George were taking in Hamburg simply to stay awake, the irony here is deafening. From all accounts, Pete was the one who stayed away from the pills. And, for the most part, Ringo wasn't around at that stage. It took until 1969, but Best eventually won a defamation lawsuit. Or is there more here to the story causing this animosity to which we are not privy?

Personally, I suspect his lacklustre drumming and his personality were the main two reasons Best was fired. Both musically and personally, he didn't lock in with the others.

It's well documented that Ivan Vaughan introduced John to Paul at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1956, although there are stories now emerging they had at least previously been aware of each other. John's best friend, Pete Shotten, soon felt as though he was being pushed aside as Paul and John became close friends. The music brought them together, but their senses of humour, their personalities clicked. Paul then introduced George to John, and although for a long time John looked down on the much younger George, they too shared similar senses of humour. Pete Best, on the other hand, was brought in on the eve of a trip to Hamburg, almost in a marriage of convenience. Drummers were far and few between in those days, especially those who owned drum kits. The contracts declared The Beatles had to be a five piece, including a drummer. They were hesitant to approach Best, both because he was was a beginner and because they'd previously fallen out over money with his dominant mother, who ran the Casbah Club. But they rang Pete because they had no choice. The audition consisted of simply playing a drum roll for Allan Williams, their manager.

But in Hamburg Pete Best was quiet, removed, and didn't share their jokes as they increasingly became in-jokes. Despite his assertions he was never asked to comb his hair forward like the others, it's significant that he didn't do so anyway. Other observers present in Hamburg at the time suggest Best simply didn't socialise with the others. He usually went off on his own, missed a number of shows, at a time when the others were becoming closer, more like a gang than a band. Don't underestimate the importance of this, as this closeness, the four becoming a single unit, would help keep them sane as they lived in the eye of the Beatlemania hurricane for the next few years. Pete simply wasn't one of the gang.

In mid-1962 John, Paul and George were already showing dissatisfaction with his playing. I can imagine that as they pranced on stage, egging each other on, they'd look back to see Pete drumming, head down over his kit, moody and not making eye contact. Mach Shau was the command from the German venue owners. Perform and 'make a show', but Pete was hardly vibrant or inspiring.

There are reports that he was a loud player, a hard hitter, solid enough and suitable for live shows, playing rock and roll covers in small clubs like the Cavern. But I've heard his drumming on the Decca auditions, and the early Parlophone recordings of Love Me Do and Besame Mucho, and while it's satisfactory, it is, for the most part, flat and uninspired, and lacks the swing Ringo brought to the band. There are times when he drags, and he seems limited in his patterns. Move forward a few years, as the band progressed, and I have serious doubts as to whether Pete would have had the finesse and creativity to have drummed on She Said, She Said, Rain or A Day In The Life. One more question worth considering. Would The Beatles as a band have developed so quickly, so brilliantly, with Pete on drums?

George Martin thought Best had serious timing issues, and told Epstein he would be using a studio drummer for recording sessions. And this comment from George Martin about his playing was simply the final straw. He was already a marked man. It was simply at this point the other made the final decision to fire Pete Best.

As a band, the Beatles were driven to succeed. They worked hard at their craft, did whatever it took to become better musicians, to become a better band, to become rich and famous. Don't be fooled by the stories of John reluctantly wearing a suit and tie at Epstein's insistence. In a 1975 interview published in Hit Parader, John responds to that legend.
"Outside of Liverpool, when we went down South in our leather outfits, the dance hall promoters didn't really like us--they thought we looked like a gang of thugs. So it got to be like Epstein said, 'Look, if you wear a suit...' and everybody wanted a good suit, you know. A nice, sharp, black suit, man... We liked the leather and the jeans but we wanted a good suit, even to wear offstage. 'Yeah, man, I'll have a suit!' So if you wore a suit, you'll get this much money... Alright I'll wear a suit. I'll wear a fucking balloon if somebody's going to pay me. I'm not in love with the leather THAT much. Wear a suit, you'll get more money."
These were guys who were prepared to do what was needed. They finally had a recording contract, and the man in charge, George Martin, had just told them their drummer was not up to scratch. You're young, you're ambitious, you've been dissatisfied with the drummer for a while anyway. You don't want to risk losing that contract. You fire Pete Best.

Everyone involved conceded the sacking of Pete Best was not handled well, and I doubt anyone else would deny that. In the band's defence, they were little more than teenagers and I suspect many of us have made poor decisions and dealt badly with events at that age.

Lennon agreed. "We were cowards when we sacked him. We made Brian do it." Harrison too. "We weren't very good at telling Pete he had to go." McCartney showed some guilt, saying, "I do feel sorry for him, because of what he could have been on to."

Mark Lewisohn, author of Tune In Vol. 1, points out that back in 1958 a similar decision was made about Eric Griffin's future in the Quarrymen. "When it came down to it, neither John (whose group it was) nor Paul (implicit in the decision) nor George (who'd set the ball rolling) had the desire to sack Eric to his face. This, they decided, was the job of the manager." Their manager at this stage was the teenage Nigel Walley.

Says Walley, "OK, Eric didn't fit into the situation. He had no personality whatsoever. You couldn't crack a smile out of him. He couldn't help it, that's the way he was. He'd play, but never smile, whereas the others had the vim and vigor."

Walley broke the news to Griffin. "He was very upset - he said he was part of the group so why would they get rid of him. It was a sad day for him and for me: he thought I'd instigated it and never forgave me. They'd just sent the messenger boy out, and that was it. John and Paul never got in touch with him themselves."

Sound familiar?

The main difference between these sackings was timing. With Best they'd just scored a contract with Parlophone after years of struggling together. And that's why I think we consider him as unlucky: it happened on the eve of fame. But an underperforming football player dropped from a team prior to the playoffs is not unlucky. He simply hasn't played well enough to hold his place, and has made way for someone who is more likely to help the team win a championship.

Pete was always going to go. Ringo was always the better fit. Or, as George Harrison put it, "Historically, it may look like we did something nasty to Pete. It may have been we could have done it better, but the thing was--as history also shows--Ringo was the member of the band. It's just that he didn't enter the film until that particular scene."