The Decca Audition
The emergence of yet another bootleg CD from the famous Decca audition prompted me to write a little bit about these recordings. The new release is an eq’d, pitch corrected and “repaired” version of the MasterDisc bootleg from 1994.
The Decca audition is the name given to the now-famous Beatles audition for Decca Records at their Decca Studios in West Hampstead, north London, England, before they reached international stardom. Decca’s decision to reject the group is considered to be one of the biggest mistakes in music history.
Manager Brian Epstein made numerous trips to London to visit record companies with the hope of securing a record contract, but was rejected by many, including Columbia, Pye, Philips, and Oriole. The Beatles were driven down to London by Neil Aspinall on New Year’s Eve in 1961, for a Decca audition, but Aspinall lost his way, and the trip took ten hours. They arrived at 10 o’clock at night, and John Lennon said that they arrived “just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain.” On 1 January 1962, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Pete Best were auditioned by Decca producer Tony Meehan (ex-drummer of the Shadows) performing a total of fifteen songs in just under one hour. All the material was selected by Epstein, who decided on a selection of covers that the band had performed in various clubs over the years, interspersed with three Lennon/McCartney originals. The Beatles later found out that Epstein had paid Meehan to produce the studio recordings.
This is the most likely order in which the songs were recorded at the Decca audition:
1. “Like Dreamers Do” (Lennon/McCartney)
2. “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Gordy/Bradford)
3. “Till There Was You” (Meredith Wilson)
4. “The Sheik of Araby” (Smith/Wheeler/Snyder)
5. “To Know Her Is to Love Her” (Phil Spector)
6. “Take Good Care of My Baby” (King/Goffin)
7. “Memphis, Tennessee” (Chuck Berry)
8. “Sure to Fall (In Love with You)” (Cantrell/Claunch/Perkins)
9. “Hello Little Girl” (Lennon/McCartney)
10. “Three Cool Cats” (Leiber/Stoller)
11. “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly)
12. “Love of the Loved” (Lennon/McCartney)
13. “September in the Rain” (Warren/Dubin)
14. “Bésame Mucho” (Consuelo Velázquez)
15. “Searchin'” (Leiber/Stoller)
Mike Smith agreed to let them record, telling them he could not see any problems and that he would let the group know of his decisions in a few weeks. Eventually, Decca Records rejected The Beatles, and are quoted to have said that “guitar groups are on the way out”, although this quote has since been disputed. Decca instead chose The Tremeloes, who auditioned the same day as The Beatles, were local and would require lower travel expenses.
While Epstein was negotiating with Decca, he also approached EMI marketing executive Ron White. White (who was not himself a record producer) in turn contacted EMI producers Norrie Paramor, Walter Ridley, and Norman Newell, all of whom declined to record The Beatles. Months later, The Beatles went on to sign with EMI subsidiary Parlophone, after their ‘comedy album’ producer George Martin heard the Decca demos and decided to meet the band.
In 1995, “The Beatles: Anthology” TV series was televised. The documentary includes snippets from many of the songs performed at the Decca audition, while the accompanying soundtrack (specifically, “The Beatles: Anthology Vol. 1”) includes five of the songs performed at the audition (“Searchin'”, “Like Dreamers Do”, “Hello Little Girl”, “Three Cool Cats”, and “The Sheik of Araby”). The remaining ten songs from the Decca audition have never been officially released, although they have frequently surfaced on grey market and bootleg releases. EMI/Apple did not have the Decca tapes in their possession prior to “Anthology”, but they actively sought tapes from collectors for “Anthology”, the Quarrymen and Decca Tapes among them. It is not known what the source for the “Anthology” version of the Decca audition tracks is, but in general they sound better than the various bootleg releases of the same songs.
The late Joe Pope ran a US Beatles fanzine in the seventies, called “Strawberry Fields Forever”. In 1977 he obtained a tape of the Decca Audition, and he used this tape to produce some 45 r.p.m. single discs on coloured vinyl (the so called Deccagone singles), which he sold through his fanzine, starting with Three Cool Cats and Hello Little Girl. That was the first time the public was able to hear the songs from the audition. Until then, the tape had been shrouded in mystery, and no one had known exactly which songs had been performed.
Joe Pope had nothing to do with the mastering of the original singles. He bought the tape and had it professionally mastered, then sold them via his fanzine. After the singles had sold for a while, an LP was released by Circuit Records in 1978, including one additional track, “Take Good Care Of My Baby“. The LP was pressed from a different tape copy than the one Joe Pope had purchased, and suffered from some dropouts on some of the tracks. Circuit also tried to make the mono tape into “fake” stereo for their release.
The first time I came across an LP with the Decca audition tracks was back in 1981 in an upmarket record shop here in Oslo, Norway. The LP was called “Dawn of the Silver Beatles” on PAC Records and it contained just ten of the songs:
Love of the Loved
Sure To Fall
Take Good Care Of My Baby
Three Cool Cats
Like Dreamers Do
Crying, Waiting, Hoping
‘Till There Was You
Inside the record was a coupon which you could send to the record company in USA and order it’s accompanying record, “Lightning Strikes Twice“, which had the five remaining Decca audition songs on one side and some Elvis recordings on the other side. Of course, I sent for that one.
Not long after that, several independent (another word for “small” in those days) record companies started selling their versions of the Decca LP. The songs seemed to be in a copyright limbo, because they were recorded prior to the Beatles signing their record contract with EMI/Parlophone. Still, the independent labels tried to stay out of trouble with “Northern Songs”, who owned the copyright on the “Lennon-McCartney” originals, typically omitting those three from the album.
The release of these LP’s containg tracks from the Decca audition coincided with the “picture disc” craze, so a lot of them were presented in this fashion. The typical track list for these LP’s:
Three Cool Cats
Crying, Waiting, Hoping
Sheik of Araby
To Know Him Is To Love Him
Take Good Care of My Baby
Sure to Fall
‘Till There Was You
September In The Rain
Notice the missing three songs; all Lennon-McCartney originals. It seemed that the “Dawn of the Silver Beatles” LP had inspired all the other record companies releasing this material under the “Silver Beatles” monicker. Historically a very incorrect labeling, as the Beatles had abandoned their “silver” prenom in mid-1960, and had been called simply “The Beatles” for a year and a half already, when appearing at their Decca audition.
After the introduction of CD’s, EMI was very slow to start releasing Beatles on the new format, so in the intervening years (1982-1987) some of the grey market and Polydor LP’s of the group were the only Beatles CD’s: The Star Club Recordings, the Tony Sheridan recordings and the Decca audition recordings. I made the transition from vinyl to CD in 1984, so I purchased a 1982 japanese CD of the Decca audition songs for my collection. That CD was called “The Silver Beatles” and issued on the TEICHICU label, although the songs seemed to be licenced from a Brooklyn-based New York company, Jimco Inc/San Juan Music Group. It contained the same 12 songs as the other grey market album releases.
Of course, the Decca material was not out of copyright, really. The Beatles were under contract with Bert Kaempfert Produktion at the time of the Decca audition, so Apple were finally able to stop these releases, along with the numerous releases of the Star Club tapes. The San Juan Music Group were successfully sued in 2000 by some music stars of the 1950s for using songs without permission. It is certain they never had permission to use or license these Beatles tracks either.
And just as the grey market CD’s went off the market, bootleg CD’s started appearing, and again the Decca tapes were to be exploited. This time all 15 tracks appeared again, because the bootleggers weren’t trying to pass their releases off as legitimate.
Over the years, many bootleg companies have issued the Decca audition songs, and some of those releases have been pitch-corrected. Still, the man behind this 2010 release by “Remasters Workshop” is claiming that:
“Despite what they all said about their Decca Tapes being speed-corrected, they were all wrong. These tracks have always been at the wrong pitch on every single issue – Deccagone, Circuit, Yellow Dog (twice), Vigotone, Masterdisc… but this issue is guaranteed to have these recordings running at A=440 on every track. Each has been played against the grand piano preset on a Korg M50 workstation, and adjusted to match in Adobe Audition 3. Even if the group were not precisely tuned to concert pitch when they played it, they are now. You can play your instrument with all the songs without having to retune or being even a hair sharp or flat.”
Beatles connoisseurs who have heard this version are still arguing whether or not this CD is an improvement on Dr. Ebbetts’ de-noised, de-clicked, speed-corrected and re-equalised “The Decca Audition”, based on vinyldrops from the original Deccagone 45 rpm singles.
Apple/Beatles have given no explanation about their decision to only release five of the fifteen Decca audition tracks.
What is evident when listening to the Decca audition is that Pete Best wasn’t a very good drummer, and that John and Paul were very nervous singers that day. The one Beatles singing with confidence here is George Harrison, who tackles one third of the songs.
Ironically, the turning down of The Beatles led indirectly to the signing of one of Decca’s biggest Sixties artists, The Rolling Stones. Head of Decca’s pop division Dick Rowe was the one person at Decca who was taking the blame for not signing the Beatles. He did make up for this later, when the Beatles had achieved fame in Britain, Rowe was judging a talent contest alongside George Harrison. Rowe asked Harrison if there were any other groups he would recommend for Decca, and Harrison mentioned to him that he should take a look at The Rolling Stones, whom he had just seen live for the first time a couple of weeks before. Rowe saw the Stones, and quickly signed them to a contract.
Links: The Decca Audition (Richie Unterberger’s detailed account)
NW Radio: Decca Audition Tape Podcast. This is the new version by “Remasters Workshop”, amended by MasterJedi. He has further enhanced the tracks, EQ’ing them a bit “warmer”, re-repairing the edit pieces with a better second source and correcting the annoying edit near the end of September In the Rain.