SEE NO FUTURE: The Failed 1962 Audition for Decca Records
On New Year’s Day, 1962, the Beatles drove ten hours to London in a fierce snowstorm to audition for Decca Records and were rejected in what has gone down as one of the greatest mistakes in the history of the music industry.
Securing an audition
After signing the Beatles, manager Brian Epstein made securing a recording contract his number one priority and worked tirelessly do so. He made several trips to London to meet with record executives including those from Columbia, Pye, and Philips, but they all rejected the young group. It took a visit to the Cavern Club by Decca A&R rep Mike Smith in December, 1961 – done as a favor to Epstein who, as manager of NEMS, was an important customer of Decca’s – and a session was set for January 1, 1962 at 11 AM.
Brian Epstein traveled to London for the audition by train while the Beatles drove down with Neil Aspinall – a nearly four hour trip that ended up taking ten hours due to a snowstorm. But they arrived in time even though Smith hadn’t, having partied a little to hard celebrating the New Year the night before, much to the band’s chagrin. Smith further irked the Beatles by deeming their equipment unfit and insisting they use amps supplied by Decca.
Brian and the Beatles carefully chose fifteen songs they felt best represented their act and showcased their versatility. They were, in order:
- Like Dreamers Do (Lennon/McCartney) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but later recorded by The Applejacks in 1964. Released officially on Anthology 1.
- Money (That’s What I Want) (Gordy/Bradford) – Later recorded for EMI and issued on their second LP With The Beatles.
- Till There Was You (Meredith Willson) – Later recorded for EMI and issued on their second LP With The Beatles.
- The Sheik Of Araby (Smith/Wheeler/Snyder) – Originally from the musical Make It Snappy, the Beatles performance was inspired by Joe Brown’s recording with lead vocals by George. Released officially on Anthology 1.
- To Know Her Is To Love Her (Phil Spector) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but the song was performed for the BBC and a version was released on Live At The BBC.
- Take Good Care Of My Baby (King/Goffin) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI.
- Memphis, Tennessee (Chuck Berry) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but the song was performed for the BBC and a version was released on Live At The BBC.
- Sure To Fall (In Love With You) (Cantrell/Claunch/Perkins) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but the song was performed for the BBC and a version was released on Live At The BBC.
- Hello Little Girl (Lennon/McCartney) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but later recorded by The Foremost in 1963. Released officially on Anthology 1.
- Three Cool Cats (Leiber/Stoller) – A comedy number recorded by The Coasters in 1957 and performed in the same style with lead vocals by George. Released officially on Anthology 1.
- Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Buddy Holly) – Never recorded by the Beatles with EMI, but the song was performed for the BBC and a version was released on Live At The BBC.
- Love Of The Loved (Lennon/McCartney)
- September In The Rain (Warren/Dubin)
- Bésame Mucho (Consuelo Velázquez) – Never issued by the Beatles with EMI, but the song was performed at their first EMI audition with George Martin and eventually released on Anthology 1.
- Searchin’ (Leiber/Stoller) – A comedy number recorded by The Coasters in 1958 and performed in the same style with lead vocals by Paul. An edited version was released on Anthology 1.
Brian also asked Decca to record the audition, to which Smith agreed, seeing no problem.
Although nervous, the Beatles were in high spirits and played with energy. The selection of three Lennon/McCartney originals proved their confidence, and Brian was comfortable enough with the performance to feel it would lead to a recording contract. He even took the boys out to a celebratory dinner and allowed them to order wine.
Mike Smith told Brian he would notify them in a few weeks. In the meantime, the same day, Decca auditioned Brian Poole and the Tremeloes from London. Smith consulted with Decca A&R rep Dick Rowe, and ultimately it was decided that signing a local act would ensure lower traveling expenses. The Beatles were out, and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes were in.
“I told Mike he’d have to decide between them. It was up to him – The Beatles or Brian Poole and the Tremeoloes. He said, ‘They’re both good, but one’s a local group, the other comes from Liverpool.’ We decided it was better to take the local group. We could work with them more easily and stay closer in touch as they came from Dagenham.” – Dick Rowe
Even after receiving the rejection notice, Brian didn’t relent. He promised the sales division at Decca he would personally buy 3,000 copies of any single Decca released from the Beatles. Unfortunately the news never reached Dick Rowe.
“I was never told about that at the time. The way economics were in the record business then, if we’d been sure of selling 3,000 copies, we’d have been forced to record them, whatever sort of group they were.” – Dick Rowe
Brian’s autobiography A Cellarful of Noise (ghostwritten by Derek Taylor) later claimed that Rowe dismissed Brian in a testy February meeting with the now-famous proclamation that “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein” – a claim further corroborated most notably by George Harrison – and advised Brian, “You have a good record business down there, Mr. Epstein, why don’t you go back to that?”. But Rowe insisted, until the day he died in 1986, that he never said that. It is unknown if Brian (or Derek Taylor) were simply spicing up an otherwise dull story for the book, or if Rowe was simply trying to distance himself from one of the biggest mistakes in music history. Of course, Decca did sign Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – a “guitar group” with a similar style to the Beatles. And even Paul admits the audition wasn’t that great:
“Listening to the tapes I can understand why we failed the Decca audition. We weren’t that good, though there were some quite interesting and original things.” – Paul McCartney
John didn’t agree:
“I wouldn’t have turned us down on that. I think it sounded OK…I think Decca expected us to be all polished, we were just doing a demo. They should have seen our potential.” – John Lennon
After finally accepting Decca’s rejection, Brian asked for and received the tape from the audition – two reels containing fifteen songs. Armed with a solid if not slightly unremarkable representation of his group, he made several more inquiries with other record companies, even having a disc pressed from the tapes at the recommendation of an HMV manager who allowed him use of an in-house disc pressing machine. The engineer, Jim Foy, liked the original Lennon/McCartney songs and had Brian contact Sid Coleman of music publisher Ardmore and Beechwood – a subsidiary of EMI. It was Coleman who arranged for Brian to meet with George Martin of Parlophone Records and led to their recording contract.
George Martin’s willingness to let the Beatles record their own material and later explore new directions to take their writing and experiment in the studio was crucial to their success – a more rigid, “by the books” producer would not have likely offered the same flexibility.
The rejection also held fortuitous for other acts. Perhaps scrambling after the Beatles’ success, Decca went on to sign some of the biggest and most important “guitar groups” in rock n’ roll history: The Rolling Stones, Them, The Moody Blues, The Zombies, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and The Small Faces, among others.
Beatles historian Steve Bradley summed it up wonderfully in his article on the subject:
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.
The audition tape
The actual tape itself (and copies thereof) has a significant role in Beatles bootleg history.
In spring of 1962 the Beatles gave a copy of the tape (some sources claim this copy was not a complete copy of the audition, but rather a selection of the best songs) to Astrid Kirchherr, girlfriend of former Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe who had taken some historic early photographs of the Beatles, to give to Sutcliffe. But unbeknownst to the Beatles, Sutcliffe had recently died from a brain hemorrhage. Kirchherr gave the tape to a friend several months later, and it is believed to be the source of the track Love Of The Loved from the 1973 bootleg L.S. Bumblebee albeit in very poor quality. This report may not be completely accurate, unless the tape was copied from Brian Epstein’s personal copy, as neither The Beatles nor Apple Records has never owned a complete copy of the audition tape.
Decca attempted to release their copy (not believed to be the original because there was no reason for them to keep it, but rather a copy made by engineer Mike Savage) several years later but were sued by Apple to prevent its release and the project was shelved.
In late 1976 or early 1977 an unnamed journalist asked Decca to borrow their copy for review. Incredibly, Decca agreed and the journalist/opportunist made a copy before returning them, and it is believed that this copy was sold to Joe Pope, author of the Beatles fanzine Strawberry Fields Forever, for $5000. Pope had the tapes professionally mastered and published fourteen of the songs (Take Good Care Of My Baby was never included) on a series of seven 7″ singles pressed on colored vinyl between 1977-1979 and sold them through his fanzine.
Brian Epstein’s copy was bequeathed to his nephew Henry when Brian died, and the contents are slightly different from other sources. According to Mark Lewisohn:
“The ending of Three Cool Cats is a single bass note longer than any version we’ve had before. The song September in the Rain is four seconds longer than any of the circulated versions as it includes a vocal line which is always edited out. These tiny differences do mark out the tape as original to Brian Epstein, not something created from any other known-to-exist source” – Mark Lewisohn
Lewisohn’s notes seem to refute reports that the 1979 Circuit Records release The Decca Tapes (the first LP release of the complete Decca audition recordings) were sourced from Epstein’s personal tapes. In that regard, it is noteworthy that Henry Epstein’s copy consists of only the second of two reels, the first having been described as lost. It is also noteworthy that the original release of The Decca Tapes — in fake stereo — was plagued with dropouts, skips, and tape speed inconsistencies. If that is the case, given what is known about the history of the tapes themselves, the source of The Decca Tapes appears to be sourced from yet another copy, not the Joe Pope or Henry Epstein reels.
The Henry Epstein reel was sold by Sotheby’s in December, 2019. The item description described the tape as,
0.25 inch (6.35mm) open reel magnetic tape on a 5 inch (127mm) Phillips brand spool labelled “2” in ball-point, carrying c.15 minutes 20 seconds mono recording at 7.5 inches/second, of The Beatles performing seven songs (‘Money’, ‘The Sheik of Araby’, ‘Memphis Tennessee’, Three Cool Cats’, ‘Sure to Fall (in Love with You)’, ‘September in the Rain’, and Like Dreamers Do’) at Decca Studios, London, on 1 January 1962, housed in a contemporary box (Emitape, for a 5.75 inch spool) labelled “2” and “THE BEATLES” in ballpoint on the base; now housed in a collector’s bespoke cloth box; end of tape frayed and brittle with 280mm detached
Although most labels believed the tapes were fair game seeing as how they were made outside of a recording contract (and they certainly weren’t owned by EMI), several releases were issued without the three Lennon/McCartney songs so as to avoid royalties conflicts with Northern Songs. In reality the Beatles were signed with Bert Kaempfert, and Apple took legal action against several labels in the mid-1980s. Since then, numerous bootlegs have been issued which collect all of the songs, pitch corrected and in very good quality.
Apple, being that they didn’t possess any tapes or copies from this session, arranged to use copies owned by collectors for the five songs which appeared on Anthology 1 (see above), as they had with the previous year’s Live At The BBC.