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The Beatles' Decca audition

Sunday 1/8/23

A couple nights ago I was listening to the Beatles' Decca audition from the first day of January 1962. I first heard this recording decades ago, but I hear the Beatles very differently now than I did then.

I see, hear, feel, everything differently in the world now than I used to. That's one of the reasons why it's foolish and bad business to ever say to me that however many books have been written on a given subject, so there shouldn't be another one. Don't look at your clipboard, or, more likely, don't consult your faulty memory and vague sense of things in deciding anything with me--look at me. Keep your eyes here. Focus.

Anything I write on a subject--it doesn't matter if there are a million books on it--will be completely new. There is no one who will understand that subject, and see, feel, hear it, as I do. The argument is moot. Everyone else says the same things. Once someone has said enough of them, a halt can be called. That's not relevant to me.

What I hear now with the Decca audition is that the Beatles were trying their assess off to get this record contract. There's a level of focus and concentration in their playing and singing that is rare for them. They are trying to nail every last note, and they're sweating it out. They are trying to be technically perfect.

The Beatles didn't always give full commitment. That's not really how they worked. It could be. But often things just came together when they did. They didn't really do drafts, to put it in writing terms, but rather they worked at something. A bit here, a bit there. Adding paint to the canvas.

The Beatles were more like painters than writers who throw away one draft and move on to another. I'd say that the best writers are more like painters themselves. You keep working on your canvas. A canvas doesn't have drafts as such. It's worked on, and the design is brought to fruition, it's realized. It gets realized. Then it's just done.

The Beatles could have real focus. Watch Paul McCartney write "Get Back" in the Get Back docu-series. Or when Lennon and McCartney were competing for glory in the early years. They knew that their film would be called A Hard Day's Night so Lennon hustled home and wrote the title track. He wanted to beat McCartney. They were competing.

Usually, though, they trusted that something would happen, which is also what the Beatles would say to each other when things were bad, and that was part of the process. It took as long as it took. Often not very long at all ("Yesterday"). Other times, longer ("Strawberry Fields Forever").

The knock against the Decca tape is that the Beatles were nervous. I don't think they were. or I don't think that was the issue. They didn't make a great choice of material. There's too much George Harrison, for one thing. They were trying to show how well-rounded they were, with three primary singers. You have the two best singers in rock and roll history. Go with that.

They didn't know what they were, exactly, at the time, but everyone in and around that band knew that Lennon and McCartney were in a different league than Harrison. The latter is fine on the BBC with his performance on "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," but he sounds like a hopeful kid trying to make a favorable impression on the Decca version with the same number.

The song selection also hurt the Beatles. "Three Cool Cats" was a witty rhythm and blues number with the Coasters handling it, but the Beatles turn it into an unfunny novelty tune. "The Sheik of Araby" was reason to take them even less seriously. Their own songs just weren't strong enough. "Besame Mucho" can work, but for it to do so, the Beatles needed to sound like they were having fun with it. They weren't having fun here.

Really they had three numbers on that morning that potentially played to their strengths: "Money," "Memphis," 'Searchin'." The last is another Coasters number, with McCartney singing lead, that would have worked extremely well on the BBC somewhere in 1963. These were tough, rhythm and blues songs that allowed the Beatles to dig in and swing. Doesn't work, though. The main problem is Pete Best. He was not the drummer for them by the longest of stretches, and I don't believe people understand the difference that Ringo Starr made. What he brought to the group and what he allowed them to be. All of the jokes over the decades have added up to people not realizing his importance, which you must know something about music, and about groups, and life, to understand.

Here's the thing with Best: he was what I think of as a mannequin drummer. If you produced an English beat drummer on a factory line that you could plug into any average beat band with an average beat band sound--but professional--then Best would be suited. But he had no feel, no individuality in his unvaried playing, nor finesse, nor power, nor pop, and when you're that way, you won't play well with these guys. You wanted to add something highly individualistic to the composite. Otherwise, you'll end up with something lite, not something human. Ringo Starr freed the Beatles.

To be fair to Best, the Beatles' March BBC session shortly after this audition is excellent, really swings. But they're in front of the live audience, and I think that allows the rest of the band to overcome the limitation. They go "over the top," if you will, to reach that payoff place. They're willing to risk some sloppiness. I'm not saying they are sloppy--but they're in a different mind frame.

George Martin recognized the Best problem right away, just as he likely realized that they could "carry" best in the live arena, but you wouldn't get very far with him on record. He's almost like a pre-relevant technology click track instead of a flesh-and-blood player. To put it in baseball terms, Starr was that catcher that you needed--the catcher who could really play in multiple phases of the game. His stats weren't as gaudy as some of the other players, but his contribution to the team was right up there. Like, say, with a Bill Freehan during his prime.


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