January 1st 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles infamous Decca audition. When Brian Epstein had suggested managing the Beatles in December 1961, he set about securing them a recording deal through his contacts in the record retail industry. Epstein's NEMS store was one of the largest record retailers in the English North, and he used his status to pressure various labels to review his new proteges. One of the labels to respond and send an A&R man north was DECCA. Mike Smith was dispatched to Liverpool, and upon hearing the Beatles play at the Cavern, he agreed that an artists test should be set as soon as possible.
This was hastily arranged for January 1st, 1962.
The fact that Epstein had secured an artists test at a large and influential recording company, less than five weeks after first hearing and meeting them, must have impressed the group enormously. Perhaps Epstein's feat dazzled them enough to allow them to trust his judgment in choosing the songs to present to Decca staff.
On new years even 1961, the Beatles drove south to London in a battered van, enduring brutal conditions, and losing their way several times en route. Arriving just in time for the stroke of the new year, they retired to a cheap hotel in a city they new little about, and appeared at Decca's west Hampstead studios at the arranged time the next morning. Running through 15 songs in just one allotted hour is hardly the best way to showcase your talent, but regardless, that's all the time the group were given.
Of the 15 songs, (while a little rough around the edges) the performances, musically and vocally, were considerably sound, with two Lennon-McCartney originals, "Like Dreamers Do" & "Hello Little Girl" offering potential single material. Others, obviously chosen by Epstein to showcase the group's eclectic appeal, made them sound comedic at best, and inconsistent in style at worst. The playing was tight, although understandable nerves can be detected in the singing. Interestingly, Pete Best's drumming, while a little erratic in time-keeping, was solid, and very different to the imploding mash of patterns he utilized at the EMI session later that year, which ultimately sealed his fate.
The group left Decca, seemingly assured that enough had been done to secure a deal. So much so in fact that Epstein began to let it leak that his group were now Decca recording artistes. Three weeks later however came the crushing news that they had been rejected, with Lennon furiously blaming Epstein for his selection of the material. Incensed, Epstein traveled to London and demanded a u-turn by Decca executives. Realising this was futile Epstein is reported to have uttered that Decca were out of their minds, his boys would be bigger than Elvis Presley. Decca's reply was polite smiles; a boastful claim indeed.
Apparently Dick Rowe, head of Decca A&R attempted to smooth the atmosphere by informing Epstein that guitar groups were simply on the way out. We will never have any way of knowing if either statement was ever made. For his part, Rowe denied ever saying such a thing. But of course he would deny it. If he had said it, he proved himself to be the most out of touch music executive in the country at that time, one who had just made a criminal error of judgment.
Rowe has always been held up as the biggest idiot in A&R history, the man who rejected the Beatles! While George Martin has been hailed as his direct opposite, the man who discovered the Beatles, the genius who recognised the genius.
This is however just a lazy conclusion, and simply incorrect. Another guitar band auditioned the same day as the Beatles for Decca. Brian Poole and The Tremeloes (or simply The Tremeloes) auditioned for the same staff. In the end it seems Decca signed The Tremeloes, from nearby Dagenham, in favour of the Beatles, from far away Liverpool. Perhaps it was a matter of cheaper travel expenses, or practical geo-logistical artiste management. Perhaps The Tremeloes were more confident in their performance, perhaps they appealed to Decca as the better option for a gamble. Remember, George Martin himself stated that he didn't really think much of the Beatles musically, in June 1962. He maintained it was their charm that encouraged him to take a risk with them.
The risk is also another factor. Decca were a big label with big artists. They would have been expected to turn a new signing into profit, quickly. Parlophone were on the other hand, an unfashionable gimmick label who produced comedy records, and the terms which George Martin initially offered that Beatles were so meager, that he stood to lose little financially. This meant his job was secure if they failed.
In the end, Epstein's wild boast regarding his group toppling Elvis Presley was proved correct, and he had Decca to thank for it! It was while attempting to cut an acetate from the Decca tapes that Epstein finally ran into George Martin, and the rest as they say, is history.
The Beatles career, often dazzling and seemingly the result of pure genius, was ultimately, the sum of many, many, apparently small parts. Around the same time Decca rejected the Beatles, they also rejected a request for employment from a 15 year old school leaver by the name of Geoffrey Emerick. Later, the engineer responsible for the sounds on Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Dick Rowe later signed The Rolling Stones, on the advice of one George Harrison, and was thus able to recoup some of his losses, and save his skin.
In a final twist, EMI staff (still unable to believe Decca had rejected their new Golden Geese) sent Rowe a plainly packaged acetate of the soon to be released 1963 chart topper "Please Please Me" 7". They were hoping to lure him into rejecting them a second time. No response was received from Decca.
If the Beatles had signed with Decca, chances are they would have recorded a few shallow and hasty singles (possibly covers) that may have flopped, sending them back to Liverpool for a life of anonymity. Fate intervened, and they fell into the hands of EMI and George Martin. I love fate.
Half a century on, I'd like to thank Decca for the 4 best things they ever did for us:
1. Funding and facilitating the Beatles contract with EMI
2. Rejecting The Beatles
3. Rejecting Geoff Emerick
4. Signing The Rolling Stones
Happy New Year Decca