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."

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