The Decca Audition
by guest blogger: Steve Bradley
“I hope we passed the audition” – were Decca right to reject the Beatles? why did they then press records for the group – and for an ex-Beatle? Decca never said “guitar groups are on the way out”
– Beatles historian Steve Bradley explains…
Brian Epstein recorded the boys live at the Cavern and was soon playing the tape to Tony Barrow, Decca’s sleeve-note author. Barrow – impressed with Brian’s enthusiasm and happy to help promote a band from his native Liverpool – put Eppy in touch with Mike Smith, deputy to Decca’s Artists and Repertoire Manager, Dick Rowe. Smith went to the Cavern on 13th December 1961, “the Beatles were tremendous” he remembered, “the crowd’s reaction was incredible.” The lads were impressed. From Epstein’s first sight of them on 9th November to barely a month later – their management contract with him not yet even signed – Brian had an A&R man from a major London label coming to Liverpool to see them perform. An audition was swiftly arranged for 1st January 1962. The exercise worked as a marketing exercise and goodwill gesture; the cost of studio time was nominal balanced against the great volume of Decca product being sold in Brian’s NEMS shops. Another group would be auditioned by Decca, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.
On New Years Eve Neil Aspinall and Pete Best set off together in the loaded van, they parked in front of the Jolly Miller Pub on Mill Lane, West Derby to meet the other Beatles. Heading for London on the cold Sunday morning, down snowy roads through icy winds to their date with destiny in the capital. The journey took ten hours instead of the usual five, Neil’s navigation struggling with poor weather and limited visibility – they got lost near Wolverhampton, around half-way on the two-hundred mile route.
Exhausted, they arrived in London and wearily checked in to the Royal Hotel, Woburn Place then headed straight out to eat and have a few beers to see in the New Year at midnight. “Brian had read the riot act to us before we went to London” recalled Pete. “Be good boys, you mustn’t be out after 10 o’clock. There we were in Trafalgar Square, drunk!”
Exhausted after a ten hour journey the Beatles check in to the Royal Hotel. The twin rooms cost fifty shillings, including breakfast (£57 or $78 now). Note; Pete shared a room with Neil Aspinall, not any of the other Beatles. This hotel check-in card is displayed at the Liverpool Beatles Museum, Mathew Street; an essential visit for Beatles fans.
Brian meanwhile travelled in the comfort of the train, as usual for the trips he made to record companies in London. Nowadays, New Years Day is a public holiday in England but in 1962 it was just another working day. It was a Monday, the Beatles having played the Cavern on the Friday and Saturday nights.
The boys arrived at the studio around 11am. “We were late getting to Decca the next day” says Pete. “Brian was there before us. He was livid”. Mike Smith was also late, he claimed he’d been held up by the snow but may also have had a late night and a few drinks! Epstein, a stickler for punctuality, was annoyed.
Built in 1884 as a workshop, by 1928 the building on Broadhurst Gardens was a recording studio for the Crystalate Record Company. During the depression of the 1930’s record companies struggled, the biggest two Decca and EMI bought many of the smaller labels, increasing their rivalry. EMI opened their studio at Abbey Road in 1931 and six years later, Decca had acquired Crystalate and moved all their recording to Broadhurst Gardens. Hits by David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Tom Jones, Lulu, The Moody Blues, Eric Clapton and classical albums were recorded here until Decca left in 1981. There were three studios, Studio 1 for pop had an upstairs control room, larger Studio 2 where the lads auditioned had a floor-level control room, Studio 3 at the rear opened later in 1962 and could seat an orchestra.
Setting up, one of the lads’ speakers was ‘humming’. It was well-used and well-worn, repeatedly in and out of Neil’s van then bumped up and down the steps to the Cavern. Their equipment inadequate for studio work, they would have to use Decca’s speakers. The boys were unnerved and Brian embarrassed, but this wouldn’t even be resolved by their June visit to EMI when soldering was required on Paul’s bass amp before the session could start!
After just a couple of sessions for Tony Sheridan the lads had little studio experience, the red ‘Recording In Progress’ light distracted them. “They were pretty frightened”, recalled Neil Aspinall. “Paul was too nervous, his voice started cracking up. They were worried about the red light. I asked if it could be turned off, but we were told people might walk in if the light was off. We didn’t know what that meant.” Their collective naivety is striking.
Starting around noon, an hour late, they recorded onto two-track mono tape with no overdubs, effectively playing live. The boys rattled through fifteen songs in a less than two hours (they are thought to have played What’d I Say as an unrecorded warm-up). Each song was likely on tape with just one attempt, the material was never intended to be issued so it didn’t get the attention from Decca that it would for commercial release.
The Beatles were eager to please Brian and co-operate with his guidance. Reports including John, and Mike Smith, indicate Brian had a significant hand in choosing the songs to perform. But Brian’s opting to display the boys stunning versatility with a broad range of genres was possibly part of their undoing. Decca didn’t see them as a rock’n’roll act, as balladeers, a middle-of-the-road covers act or even a novelty act. Unable to identify them with one style, they wouldn’t have known how to promote them. The Beatles and Brian learnt from this and would be more careful in future.
Let’s look at the songs. One of their great early cover versions was Money, the EMI version has energy and instrumental attack both absent on the Decca tape – John sings it almost cheerfully, lacking the intensity of his stunning vocal on the Parlophone release. On Till There Was You, Paul’s voice betrays his nerves possibly more than elsewhere at this session. Curiously, George plays not one but two guitar solos, we can’t be sure if that was the arrangement used at the time or if more likely, they nervously lost their place for a moment.
Of the trio of self-composed offerings, Love Of The Loved was later Cilla Black’s debut. Well-rehearsed, Paul’s tidy arrangement and unusual chord changes hint to the future. The Fabs never released it officially, excluded from Anthology possibly because Paul remains dissatisfied with it.
Like Dreamers Do is another Paul vocal; despite sentimental lyrics it is catchy and charming in its arrangement. Paul struggles to reach the higher notes as if over-thinking it, nervously trying too hard, his stretched-out ‘I-yi-yi’ in the bridge is a little clumsy. The song would later be a UK hit for the Applejacks.
Final self-composition Hello Little Girl dates to even earlier than its appearance on a 1960 home-demo tape. John’s song inspired by Buddy Holly offers a charming, jaunty energy while the vocal harmonies from John and Paul are the biggest clue to future quality. George joins the vocals in the bridge, creating the sound that would rock British pop the following year – this becomes a highlight in the Decca set. It has a Hamburg rawness lacking from the cleaner attempt the Fourmost took to the charts in the Mersey Beat boom.
Bobby Vee’s Take Good Care of My Baby sung by George was written by Fab-faves Goffin and King. Best confirms that “we thought we should do one or two from the Top 20.” The lads deliver a decent attempt but with Paul’s harmonies a little strained and the arrangement hurried.
The Sheik of Araby from 1940 film “Tin Pan Alley” is another George vocal, inspired by one of his favourite singers Joe Brown’s version. They hurry through this song in barely a minute and a half, John enjoying the comedy element – “Not ‘arf!” Brian’s choice of September in the Rain is nicely rearranged for their sound, Paul’s excitable count-in demonstrating increased confidence.
To Know Her Is to Love Her was a 1958 US chart-topper for the Teddy Bears, written by future-Beatles Producer Phil Spector. Paul and George harmonise with John’s lead vocal, a template for their later songs like This Boy.
The much-loved Coasters provided three songs for the Beatles Decca repertoire. Paul sings Searchin’ enthusiastically, he would later choose it as one of his Desert Island Discs.
George’s confident vocal on Three Cool Cats indicates a confidence beyond his eighteen years of age – and Lennon clearly enjoyed the accents in the spoken replies. Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde sang it on TV in 1959’s “Oh Boy!” – highly likely one or more Beatles saw the broadcast – the lads revisited it in rehearsals for “Let It Be”. The Decca take of Besame Mucho (in English, “Kiss Me A Lot”) has a raw energy making it arguably better than the more polished EMI version on “Anthology”. The infectiously humorous chorus (“cha-cha boom!”) was largely dropped by the time they played it for George Martin. The lack of nervousness on this song suggest it was likely recorded late in the session.
This final trio were all revisited for BBC radio sessions; Sure to Fall is good but not great, Paul’s voice shaky, the song too fast.
John’s reading of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee plods a little and he gets the lyric wrong, singing (or pronouncing) “smallco” instead of “cos’ my Uncle.”
Harrison leads Buddy Holly’s Crying, Waiting, Hoping which isn’t bad at all, the revisit for the BBC would be smoother. The youngest Beatle arguably emerged from Decca with the greatest accolades of the four, he doesn’t put a foot wrong vocally all day and his guitar work while not spectacular is steady and solid.
Pete sometimes pushed the songs forward a little faster than needed; he can hold down the beat steadily enough but there is no invention, no percussive emphasis, no attack. “Pete was very average and didn’t keep good time” recalled Mike Savage, Studio Engineer at the session. “If Decca was going to sign the Beatles, we wouldn’t have used Pete Best on the record,” was his assessment.
Their studio inexperience is audible where they ‘click’ vocal sounds, such as Paul’s over-emphasised ‘k’ in “each time I look” (“Love Of The Loved”) and “musik” (“Till There Was You”). Later, coaching from George Martin aided positioning and use of microphones to better articulate their singing. John already sounds like the Lennon we know and love, Paul is a little behind in finding his own style. He’s faithful to the originals on the cover versions but still developing the McCartney voice he will bring to perfection for “Love Me Do” later that year.
“We were all excited (but) we were terriﬁed and nervous” recalled John years later. “It starts off terrifying and gradually settles down. It’s primitive, it isn’t recorded well, but the power’s there. It was the tracks we were doing in the dance halls” he explained. As the lads and Brian trailed out at the end, my imagination has John saying to Mike Smith “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.” Not the last time he would utter those words on a cold January day in London. Epstein treated the boys to a (prematurely) celebratory dinner in a Swiss Cottage restaurant recommended by Smith.
Smith wanted to sign both groups he’d seen, Beatles and Tremeloes, but Rowe said just one – Smith would have to choose. This despite Decca’s recent public proclamations to support British talent and expand their roster with new home-grown acts. The Tremeloes won because they’d auditioned better; also it was easier working with and promoting a local band in Dagenham, Essex just four miles from Smiths home in Barking. Indeed, Smith already knew Poole’s group personally and my thoughts are that the decision had been made before January 1st anyway.
Dick Rowe invited Brian to meet him in London for lunch on 6th February with Decca Sales Manager Sidney Beecher-Stevens, they told him Decca would not sign the Beatles. “You must be out of your tiny little minds!” snapped Epstein, “these boys are going to explode, one day they will be bigger than Elvis!”. According to Brian’s autobiography, Rowe replied “We don’t like the boys’ sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out. You should stick to selling records in Liverpool.” Dick Rowe denied ever using these infamous words. Decca instead signed a five-piece group… with three guitars. The top selling acts in the UK in 1961 were solo acts (Elvis, Billy Fury, Helen Shapiro) except one acoustic duo (Everly Brothers) and one instrumental group (Shadows). Guitar groups weren’t “going out” because they weren’t, and hadn’t been, “in.” Furthermore, it is inconceivable Rowe would patronise a big Decca customer by telling him to stick to selling (their) records.
Brian convinced himself and the boys he would progress their careers, his influence and direction would secure a record contract. His embarrassment so deep and frustration so acute, even when being interviewed for “A Cellarful of Noise” in 1964, he couldn’t resist this blunt attack on Rowe’s judgement and Decca’s credibility – even though the Beatles were by now selling millions of records on EMI. While ‘guitar groups’ and ‘selling records’ make for a great anecdote, more than likely they were created solely by Epstein’s lingering resentment, then polished by his ghost-writer Derek Taylor. Rowe actually saying these things is implausible.
“It’s unfortunate the excitement (of the Cavern) couldn’t be carried to the audition” reflected Mike Smith. “We got them too early. They’d written wonderful songs that didn’t appear that day, sadly I said ‘no’. I didn’t envision them turning into a phenomenon, which I regretted bitterly over the years” he reflected. “We went back to Liverpool and waited” recalled John, “and found we hadn’t been accepted. We thought that was it, we thought that was the end.”
Epstein marched out of the Decca meeting clutching the audition tape. Two days later he met Bob Boast, Manager of the HMV record shop in Oxford Street, they’d formed a friendship at an industry seminar in Hamburg. Boast suggested Epstein go to the studio upstairs and copy the tape onto disc, it would look better when Brian approached other record companies. Logic dictates you don’t use a ‘failure’ to support your next ‘success’, but in Epstein’s naivety – and in the lack of any alternatives – he would bravely continue using a rejected audition tape to persuade the industry that the Beatles were a good prospect. “Everybody turned them down” recalled Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Oldham. “Columbia, Oriole, Philips and Pye turned the Beatles down, based on what they heard from the Decca session.”
Disk-cutter Jim Foy was impressed that Lennon and McCartney composed, it was unusual for bands to pen their own material. Foy told Sid Coleman, Head of EMI’s publishing arm Ardmore and Beechwood, his office was on the top floor of the same building. Coleman also liked the Lennon-McCartney songs and invited Epstein to discuss publishing right away. With the objective of getting a record deal, Brian didn’t want to be distracted from that just yet. Coleman swiftly arranged a meeting between Brian and George Martin at Parlophone. It would be the opportunity for EMI to secure the songwriting publishing that would lead to the record contract.
Such is the nature of chance and coincidence in the incredible story of the Beatles. This convoluted plot involved a chain of Rowe, then Smith, then Boast, Foy, Coleman and finally Martin. Had any man made a different decision – or not made a decision – the outcome would have been different. Perhaps somehow we were all destined by fate to hear the Beatles on EMI?
Mark Lewisohn tells us Martin was obliged by the publisher to meet the Beatles, so as to not risk losing the publishing rights. Martin was also under pressure from his boss who was struggling to keep the talented and ambitious Producer in his place; he may have been told to see the Beatles no matter what he thought himself. Notwithstanding EMI’s commercial interests or internal politics, Martin invited them to Abbey Road on 6th June for what was more ‘test recording session’ than ‘audition’.
It was here the lads secured their future by finding an opportunity Decca had not given them; they revealed their personalities and humour. Harrison’s famous “I don’t like your tie” quip indicated these four men were streetwise and confident but also witty and charming. They sold their personalities to Martin, adding another layer of potential to their propositions as writers and performers. As Martin knew he liked them he felt the general public would too; his confidence in them grew instantly.
“It was a lousy tape” recalled Martin of the Decca tape, “badly balanced, not good songs, a rather raw group”– he told Mark Lewisohn that on the tape alone he too would have turned them down. Harrison admitted to Rowe that Decca were right to decline as they hadn’t played well on audition day. George generously advised him to check out the Rolling Stones and Decca signed them within days.
Rowe offered to press Beatles records at the band’s expense; he received Epstein’s rejection letter dated 10th February 1962. But by a curious twist of fate Decca ended up pressing thousands of Beatles records in 1963. With Fab albums selling at unprecedented levels in late ‘63 EMI’s pressing plant at Hayes couldn’t keep up with demand for With the Beatles, and following its success, a renewed demand for Please Please Me. Parlophone outsourced additional pressing of these LP’s to Decca who pressed thousands of the first two albums, mostly the second release. EMI didn’t want to see a shortage of stock let the albums slip down the charts.
A confidentiality agreement between the labels has not come to public view so exact figures of Decca Beatles albums are unknown. It’s estimated at no more than 5% of pressings over a few months, perhaps 90% of them With The Beatles. Decca pressings are identifiable by a deep-groove circular indentation half an inch inside the label, worth a little more than their EMI counterparts as there’s fewer of them – particularly Please Please Me (there are some differences in the small print copyright details on the labels too). When the Beatles spotted Smith across a busy London road around then, they cheekily jeered and offered him the traditional two-fingered English salute; the unfortunate Producer couldn’t help but laugh.
Brian Poole’s Tremeloes sold over a million copies of 1963’s Twist and Shout, after they’d heard, you guessed it, the Beatles version. Another Mersey band inspired Dagenham’s finest; the Tremeloes heard Faron’s Flamingos’ Do You Love Me and promptly returned to Broadhurst Gardens to cut the track. It topped the UK charts displacing She Loves You, causing Decca to briefly wonder if they had made the right decision after all? An ex-Beatle also became a Decca artiste – Pete Best, with Mike Smith producing, was in Lee Curtis and the All Stars then later the Pete Best Four; both recorded for Decca, including 1964 single I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.
Outside the Beatles inner circle the tape went unheard. In Spring 1962 the Beatles gifted a tape of the best eight tracks to Astrid Kirchherr, she gave it away to a friend the following year. John and Yoko sent a disc of what they thought was the Decca tape as a Christmas gift to Paul and Linda in 1971; it was actually tracks they’d recorded for BBC radio!
A copy of the complete tape mysteriously appeared and was acquired by a pair of New Yorkers in 1977 for $5,000 (around $21,500 or £16,000 now). Immediately released as a bootleg some tracks were broadcast on radio by an FM station in Philadelphia. Widely bootlegged through the 70s and 80s, most pressings didn’t include the Lennon/ McCartney songs to keep the Beatles’ publishers at arms length. Some releases incorrectly credited the Silver Beetles, one picture disc issue even showing White Album-era Beatles, including Ringo! Several tracks were mastered at the wrong speed, others used sloppy editing to extend songs’ duration. By 1988 Apple had legally acquired ownership of the tape – which historically was Brian Epstein’s anyway – and started suing anyone issuing the songs in the US or UK; it has been rarely seen on the legal market since. Five songs surfaced on Anthology in 1995, bringing Pete Best a belated but deserved Beatles royalties windfall.
So why did Decca reject the Beatles? They were great on stage but nervous in the studio. Confident in Liverpool, cautious in London. Good in general, they’d get much better. They were tired, cold, hungover, pressured, using unfamiliar equipment, and simply not ready. Getting through it bettered them before meeting George Martin five months later, just as playing Hamburg venues improved them for Liverpool’s. Decca crucially didn’t meet sparkling personalities or hear Scouse wit. Decca never saw an opportunity for songwriting publishing, purely thinking of a recording deal. The audition was partly a favour to a valuable Decca customer, less a real test of talent. Their chemistry wasn’t quite right, they didn’t have Ringo yet – as we know, George Martin wouldn’t have used Pete for studio work anyway. Finally, no-one said they were bad or guitars were on the way out – despite Epstein’s words attributed to Rowe – they were simply the second best out of two groups on one day.
Had they been signed by Decca they’d have an unsympathetic producer and recorded unsuitable material possibly at the expense of their own compositions. Recording their first album with Martin a year later they had a better drummer, more studio experience, another year of songwriting and gigging, and more Hamburg trips completed – they were a different band. When rejected by Decca they felt it was the worst thing to happen, but history shows it was one of their biggest lucky breaks.
Rowe left Decca in 1975, he passed away at home in Greenwich in 1986. In a curious postscript, his son Richard Rowe became a Solicitor at CBS Records/ Sony and was President of publishing; he sealed the deal with Michael Jackson to publish the Beatles catalogue. Smith recovered from his decision, enjoying a successful career Producing six UK chart-toppers including Marmalade’s 1968 Ob La Di Ob La Da. Suffering from emphysema he sadly died in Surrey in 2011.
Apple must release the Decca tapes – remastered, cleaned-up and suitably packaged with archive documents and photos. One of the most important of officially unreleased Beatles recordings, a crucial document of the early days of the band; fans worldwide would surely enjoy a properly curated issue of the tape…
Beatles historian Steve Bradley has been researching the group for over 40 years.
He’s written for magazines, regional and local press, websites, and shares new findings with experts and authors.
Steve has visited over 350 Beatles locations in Liverpool, London, Hamburg, across the UK and USA.
He’s gained additional insight into their lives and music from talking personally with their fellow musicians, family members, partners, friends, biographers and business associates.
Originally from Cheshire, Steve now lives on Merseyside. His most treasured possession is a sweaty towel Paul McCartney gave him after a gig.
This article was originally posted on Steve’s own blog, «Arrive without travelling», which he publishes on Facebook. Follow it here.
A few Decca Tapes links:
- The Daily Beatle: January 28, 2010 The Decca Audition
- The Daily Beatle: December 3, 2010 New tape source for Decca Audition
- The Daily Beatle: November 23, 2012 Decca tape from 1983
- The Daily Beatle: November 29, 2012 Unsold Decca tapes
- The Daily Beatle: December 5, 2012 Sold! The incomplete 1982 Decca Tapes needledrop
- The Daily Beatle: February 26, 2016 A one off Beatles single
- The Daily Beatle: December 3, 2019 Decca tape for sale at Sotheby’s
- The Daily Beatle: December 14, 2019 The Decca tape went for £62 500
- The Decca Audition (Richie Unterberger’s detailed account)
- Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik: Constructing sleeve notes for the Decca Tapes