This week back in 1962, The Beatles were waiting to hear back on their first major record audition. Just a few days before, they played an audition to the label on New Year’s Day, an opportunity set up by their newly hired manager, Brian Epstein. Despite tearing through 15 songs in just under an hour, including three originals, their audition for Decca Records would be rejected. Epstein, a man known for his persistence, kept pushing back trying to sway the label’s decision. Instead, the label responded to Epstein’s follow-up request by telling him that “guitar groups are on their way out.”
“Like Dreamers Do”
As far back as early 1960, The Beatles were a popular blue-collar bar band that played fast and loose rock and roll in towns across England, Scotland and Germany. The band featured a mostly familiar lineup, with dueling frontmen John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison on lead guitar, but this being the pre-Ringo days meant that Pete Best was behind the drum kit.
After cutting their teeth on rock and roll standards from the likes of Chuck Berry and Phil Spector, they’d been signed to Polydor Records as the backing band for crooner Tony Sheridan. They’d even enjoyed some minor success when Sheridan’s version of “My Bonnie” hit number 32 on the Musikmart chart — the British equivalent of the Billboard charts.
After months of non-stop performing, they were gaining some popularity as part of the Mersey Sound movement, a loosely affiliated group of bands that played around towns on the Mersey River, most notably Liverpool, and was heavily chronicled by the Mersey Beat magazine. It was also around this time that their enthusiasm was put to the test, playing gigs night and day, popping the stimulant Preludin to keep their energy up — though things would start to change in November 1961, when the band first crossed paths with Brian Epstein.
“Money (That’s What I Want)”
Then the manager of the North End Music Store in Liverpool, Epstein caught The Beatles during one of their lunchtime gigs at The Cavern Club, and spent weeks talking his way into becoming their manager. Once he was brought on board, The Beatles’ career started moving forward rather quickly. He’d dissolved their existing contract with Polydor Records, getting them an early release in exchange for some additional recordings to be made with Sheridan. He also set up their first big audition within two months, using his leverage as a music retailer to help get his foot in the door at Decca Records in London.
The day before their audition, the four Beatles, along with then-roadie Neil Aspinall — who’d later be made CEO of the band’s company, Apple Corp. — loaded up a car and left Liverpool. Along the way, Aspinall took a wrong turn, causing the normally 220-mile drive to take closer to 10 hours. Lennon recounted that they all managed to arrive in London that New Year’s Eve “just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain.”
The next morning, session producer Mike Smith was running late, eventually showing up cranky and hung over, informing the band they’d have to use Decca’s equipment, deeming their amps to be substandard. He also taped their audition, having been sent by Decca’s head of A&R Dick Rowe to catch them perform at The Cavern Club 19 days earlier, again as a favor to Epstein.
“Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’ “
A few days after their audition, Epstein got the news that Decca was passing on The Beatles. While Rowe was the one to deliver the message, he denied actually making that decision until his death in 1986, saying that it was Smith who rejected their audition. Though it may not have been Rowe’s decision, he was the one to tell them that “guitar groups are on their way out,” and that the band had “no future in show business.”
Instead, Decca elected to sign the other band who auditioned that day, Brian Poole and The Tremeloes. While they were also a guitar group, they were a more cost-effective option based on the fact that they also lived in London. While Smith had observed that “both groups were good,” one was local and one wasn’t, so the label “decided it was better to take the local group” which would have meant fewer travel expenses.
Ever the determined manager, Epstein arranged for another meeting with Decca not long after, guaranteeing the sale of at least 3,000 records should The Beatles be signed, once again using his clout in music retail to further the band’s career. Epstein’s offer didn’t change any minds, although Rowe claims this offer never got back to him, and admitted with the state of the music industry at the time, a promise of those kinds of sales would have “forced [Decca] to record them, whatever sort of group they were.”
Meanwhile, Epstein continued shopping the band around, landing them a deal at Parlophone Records, an offshoot of EMI, in May of 1962. Having heard their Decca audition, producer George Martin believed there was untapped potential in the band. Martin, who’d come to be involved with every Beatles album throughout their career, started to make changes after their first session, telling Epstein that he was concerned about Best’s drumming, and didn’t use him on any recordings that followed. By mid-August, Best would play his last live show with the band at The Cavern Club before being fired by Epstein, with Ringo Starr coming on as his replacement three days later.
“Love of the Loved”
It wasn’t long before The Beatles career would take off into the stratosphere, with their first single “Love Me Do” released in October 1962, and their first full-length record, Please Please Me, dropping in March of the following year. They were well on their way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. Rowe, who had in this time gained the reputation as ‘the man who turned down The Beatles,’ would quickly redeem himself, signing The Rolling Stones in May 1963, based on the suggestion of none other than George Harrison. It was the first of many substantial acts he’d sign that would help shape music in the latter half of the 20th century, including Tom Jones, Them (featuring Van Morrison) and The Moody Blues, though he’d never fully shake the stigma of that one notorious message.
When former Beatles themselves were asked about that New Year’s Day audition, McCartney — ever the diplomat — observed that they simply “weren’t that good.” Lennon, of course, disagreed, insisting that Decca “should have seen our potential.” Either way, while The Beatles have remained consistently popular to this day, it seems that guitar groups managed to stick around for a little while after all.