The Beatles' Decca audition
|History of the Beatles|
The English rock band the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records at Decca Studios in West Hampstead, north London on 1 January 1962. They were rejected by the label, which instead selected Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Some of the songs recorded for the audition had been available as bootleg recordings but some songs were officially released on the Beatles rarities compilation Anthology 1 in 1995.
Manager Brian Epstein met with record companies in London to secure a record contract, and he was rejected by many, including Columbia, HMV, Pye, Philips, and Oriole. After Epstein had meetings with both EMI and Decca at the start of December 1961, Decca A&R executive Mike Smith travelled to Liverpool to see the Beatles perform at The Cavern Club, and was impressed enough to ask Epstein to bring the band down to London for a test in Decca's recording studios, scheduled for 1 January 1962.
Neil Aspinall drove the Beatles down to London on New Year's Eve 1961 but lost his way, and the trip took ten hours. They arrived at 10 p.m., "just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain", as Lennon described it.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best arrived at the audition, formally known as a 'Commercial Test' to be headed by Mike Smith with Decca staff, on 1 January 1962 at 10 a.m. However, Smith was late, as he was suffering from a New Year's party hangover as well as cuts and bruises from a car crash three days before Christmas, causing the start of the audition to be slightly delayed.
At the time, the standard procedure for a test of this type was to record between two and five songs and then quickly usher the artists out of the studio. However, the Beatles ended up recording fifteen songs, and the recording session was extended after a lunch break into the afternoon. This could suggest that, if offered a deal, their first single and perhaps others would have been taken from the resulting tape.
For the setlist, Epstein and the Beatles decided on a selection of songs that the Beatles had performed in various clubs over the years, along with three Lennon–McCartney originals.
Afterwards, the Beatles came to believe that Epstein had paid Decca to tape the audition. Lennon asserted that Decca producer Tony Meehan produced the Decca audition session, but current scholarship considers this unlikely.
The likely order of the songs at the session was:
- "Till There Was You" (Meredith Willson) (Unreleased version)
- "To Know Her Is to Love Her" (Phil Spector) (Unreleased version)
- "Take Good Care of My Baby" (Carole King/Gerry Goffin) (Unreleased)
- "Hello Little Girl" (Lennon-McCartney)
- "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" (Buddy Holly) (Unreleased version)
- "Love of the Loved" (Lennon/McCartney) (Unreleased)
- "Bésame Mucho" (Consuelo Velázquez) (Unreleased version)
- "Searchin'" (Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
- "Money (That's What I Want)" (Berry Gordy/Janie Bradford) (Unreleased version)
- "The Sheik of Araby" (Harry B. Smith/Francis Wheeler/Ted Snyder)
- "Memphis, Tennessee" (Chuck Berry) (Unreleased version)
- "Three Cool Cats" (Leiber/Stoller)
- "Sure to Fall (in Love with You)" (Carl Perkins/Bill Cantrell/Quinton Claunch) (Unreleased version)
- "September in the Rain" (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) (Unreleased)
- "Like Dreamers Do" (Lennon/McCartney)
About a month later, Decca Records rejected the Beatles. The executives felt that "guitar groups are on the way out" and "the Beatles have no future in show business". Some music historians have suggested, however, that their work that day did not yet reflect their true potential, and the "guitar" comment may have been intended as a polite let down. In his 1964 autobiography, Epstein ascribed the "guitar" comment to Dick Rowe, although Rowe denied it as long as he lived. Decca instead chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes who auditioned the same day as the Beatles, because they were local and would require lower travel expenses.
While Epstein was negotiating with Decca, he also approached EMI marketing executive Ron White. White was not a record producer, but he contacted EMI producers Norrie Paramor, Walter Ridley, and Norman Newell, all of whom declined to record the Beatles. They eventually signed with EMI subsidiary Parlophone, after producer George Martin heard the Decca demos and decided to meet the band.
Many have speculated about who made the decision to reject the Beatles. While various accounts of the audition have been published, most agree it was Dick Rowe, producer Mike Smith or ex-Shadow Tony Meehan.
In the 1980s, Mark Lewisohn published the book Recording Sessions and, following the author's invitation from EMI to trawl through the vaults and catalogue all the Beatles' outtakes, another book updated it about six years later. In 2000, both of these were combined into The Complete Beatles Chronicle, which contains information about the audition:
Lewisohn had visited EMI and not Decca, but he began his account with an entry for 1 January 1962:
- Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, London
- "…first formal audition for a British record company, in a studio 2 miles from EMI, the Beatles nervously taped 15 songs chosen by Brian Epstein to show off every facet of their talent…each song done live on 2 track mono tape…A&R assistant Mike Smith had been sent by Dick Rowe to see the Beatles 19 days earlier in Liverpool…the Beatles completed the session in an hour…Smith promised to call Epstein."
Underneath this entry is shown an acetate of a 45, not for the entire session but for a single of "Like Dreamers Do" (supposedly Decca cut a number of acetates from the audition before they said no).
The Liverpool music paper Mersey Beat was the first to report on the Mike Smith visit by writing that the producer had made a tape of the performance (this amounted to the first "test") and wrote "... certain Decca would put the Beatles to good use".
In a sense, it was the Beatles who rejected Decca: Dick Rowe offered that Decca would press the records if the Beatles would pay for them. But on 10 February 1962 Epstein sent him a letter rejecting this offer.
The Rolling Stones benefited from the Beatles' Decca rejection. Soon after the Beatles became popular in Britain, Dick Rowe appeared on Juke Box Jury alongside George Harrison, who reportedly raved to him about his new favourite, an unsigned band.
The rejection was parodied in the Rutles movie All You Need Is Cash (1978), in which Dan Aykroyd plays record executive Brian Thigh, who turned down the Rutles. After ruminating over the "millions in royalties" lost by Thigh's company, the interviewer (Eric Idle) asks the record exec point-blank, "What's it like being such an asshole?"
The 1995 documentary The Beatles Anthology includes snippets from many of the songs performed at the Decca audition, while the accompanying soundtrack, Anthology 1, includes five of those songs ("Searchin'", "Like Dreamers Do", "Hello Little Girl", "Three Cool Cats", and "The Sheik of Araby") along with many other outtakes and various live performances.
Sale of audition tape
The original safety master tape the group recorded at Decca's London studios was sold by auctioneers the Fame Bureau in December 2012 to a Japanese collector for £35,000. A spokesman for the auctioneers said at the time "The tape went to a Capitol Records executive after the Beatles signed with EMI. He sold it to the current owner who was one of the top buyers for Hard Rock Cafe but it was for his own personal collection." The authenticity of the tape sold remains debatable among experts, however, as the tape of the audition contains 15 songs. The tape auctioned has only 10 songs and is on Ampex tape which was not in use in 1962. It has not been firmly ascertained if the original master tape recorded by Decca on 1 January 1962 is in the possession of the Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd. A copy of the tape used by bootleggers for the past forty years is known to be in the hands of a private collector.
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- Miles 1997 p89
- Lewisohn, Mark (2013). The Beatles - All These Years: Volume One: Tune In. United Kingdom: Little, Brown. pp. 526–527, 546–547. ISBN 978-0-316-72960-4.
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- Cynthia Lennon, John 2006. p108.
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- Telegraph reporters (4 December 2012). "Rejected Beatles audition tape fetches £35,000 at auction after last-minute legal wrangle". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
- "Sold! The incomplete 1982 Decca Tapes".