top of page

Benzedrine beat

Saturday 4/1/23

I have to read it back multiple times, but the Big Three/Beatles piece is done. 2200 words. Two new Beatles pieces, 5000 words, just like that. It is very easy to take what I am doing for granted, because every day there are thousands of new words for various works of art. But there is no overstating how humanly difficult this is--it's impossible, were it anyone else, and should never be taken for granted because it is not done, has not been done, and won't be done by anyone else again. This is a one-time thing in human history. One that plays out every single day.


When we compare with versions the Beatles cut, either at the Cavern or on the BBC, the difference tells, which says more about the Beatles than the Big Three, but the gap is the gap, all the same. The Beatles cranked up the speed of the number, so that to hear it was to feel like you were listening to something hot to the touch, if it had tangible form. It’s piping.

Lennon and McCartney scream throughout, delirious with their own excitement, which on the BBC created a hothouse atmosphere that produced one of George Harrison’s best solos. They sing in tandem, but it’s one of those joint-lead vocal Beatles performances where Lennon sings lead just a bit more than McCartney does. After all, this was a theme—jealousy—that played to his vocal strengths. Any time someone was perceived to be moving in on the singer’s girl—whether it be in “This Boy,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”—Lennon invariably delivered a singing performance near his considerable peak.

So, okay, the Beatles were tough to beat, which doesn’t limit what the Big Three could do. They just weren’t around that long to do too much of it. But they did leave us a unique document in the four-song EP, At the Cavern, released in November 1963, which is also when the Beatles dropped “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and With the Beatles on England’s record buying public. An interesting month.

The Cavern of the title is that Cavern, the Matthew Street cellar club in Liverpool that became the Beatles’ unofficial base—and where we can hear them rehearsing with Ringo Starr shortly after the drummer joined the band in 1962—without which so much might not have been. Brian Epstein first heard the Beatles at the Cavern, and in December of 1963, when the Beatles played the Empire Theatre, the Beatles themselves were making in-jokes and referencing this dank, musical hole in the ground that had meant so much to who they had become.

We just don’t have much audio evidence of what the Cavern was really like and how a gig sounded there, which means that this Big Three EP will always have its place in musical history. Better yet, the record begins with the voice of Cavern Club chief denizen/master of basement ceremonies, Bob Wooler, doing one of his amped-up, excitement-inducing introductions.

“We got the hi-fi high and the lights down low,” Wooler enthuses, “So here we go with the Big Three show!”

You can practically feel the the condensation and sweat dripping on the walls. The Big Three were billed as the band with the Benzedrine beat—these not being the most PC of times—and the EP serves as the evidence for why that was. They even turn “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” into a chunk of rhythm and blues heaviness.

But it’s the opening cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” that is the band’s powerhouse contribution to the Liverpool sound. Were one to assemble an anthology of what Merseyside beat music was all about in that crucial year of 1963, this would be the power trio selection.

Johnny Hutch’s drums must have sent dust and flakes of mortar raining down from the brick ceiling. You feel the performance in your chest, just as you think, “These guys could have been monsters.”


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page