The Beatles auditioned for Decca Records on New Year’s Day back in 1962. It was a fateful day for a certain Dick Rowe who was the then head of A&R at the record company. His insistence that The Beatles had no future in the entertainment industry sealed his unenviable reputation forever as the man who rejected the greatest rock and roll band of all time.
The Decca audition
The Beatles drove down to London from Liverpool in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve 1961 and were eagerly anticipating their audition with Decca the following day where they set up and recorded 15 tracks in only a couple of hours.
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein had made overtures to a number of record companies at the time namely: Columbia, HMV, Pye, Philips, and Oriole.
Dick Rowe, the A&R man at Decca who had agreed to give the group a hearing was unimpressed however, and famously told Brian Epstein that “guitar groups are on their way out.” A few months later the Beatles signed with George Martin at Parlophone Records which was an imprint of EMI that specialised in producing comedy records. The pairing ultimately resulted in what was arguably the most successful artist-producer collaboration in history.
The track list of songs at the Decca audition was as follows:
“Like Dreamers Do” (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
“Money (That’s What I Want)” (Gordy/Bradford) (unreleased version)
“Till There Was You” (Meredith Willson) (unreleased version)
“The Sheik of Araby” (Smith/Wheeler/Snyder)
“To Know Her Is to Love Her” (Phil Spector) (unreleased version)
“Take Good Care of My Baby” (King/Goffin) (unreleased)
“Memphis, Tennessee” (Chuck Berry) (unreleased version)
“Sure to Fall (In Love with You)” (Cantrell/Claunch/Perkins) (unreleased version)
“Hello Little Girl” (Lennon/McCartney)
“Three Cool Cats” (Leiber/Stoller)
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly) (unreleased version)
“Love of the Loved” (Lennon/McCartney) (unreleased)
“September in the Rain” (Warren/Dubin) (unreleased)
“Bésame Mucho” (Consuelo Velázquez) (unreleased version)
Why did Decca reject them?
Producer George Martin had always asserted that Pete Best, the then drummer who preceded Ringo Starr was not suitable for the fledgling band and the Decca session tapes support this claim to a degree. The tracks are riddled with poor time keeping and limited rhythmic invention but Best himself always claimed he was fired from the group as a result of the other band members’ jealousy at his relative popularity with female fans.
Paul McCartney himself has said, “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.”
John Lennon has however contradicted this view by stating, “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.”
The Decca tapes contain many of the elements that were to form the cornerstone of the group’s later success namely their harmonies, their effervescent sense of humour and Paul McCartney’s bass playing, but the band lacked the charisma in those performances that was to propel them to the very pinnacle of commercial and artistic achievement. Some argue it was Pete Best’s uninspired drumming whilst others claim it may have been nerves, but the Decca audition doesn’t capture their magical quality in the way George Martin subsequently did.
What did Decca ultimately miss out on?
A brief but by no means comprehensive assessment of Decca’s business blunder in figures is as follows:
73 million: The number of people that tuned in to see The Beatles’ live U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Of the 20 songs The Beatles played during those performances, seven of them ended up becoming Number One hits.
250,000: Unable to prevent DJs playing a leaked version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Capitol Records brought the release date forward to Dec. 26, 1963, and within three days the record had sold 250,000 copies. By Jan. 10, 1964 it had sold over one million units.
$1.3 million: The amount of money their first movie “A Hard Day’s Night” grossed in the U.S. during its opening week in 1964 – roughly $10million in today’s money.
15 weeks: The amount of time the band’s chart-topping album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” spent at the top of the charts in 1967.
9 million: The number of copies their best-selling album “Abbey Road” sold.
23: The number of gold singles the band holds, which is the most for any group in history.
20: The amount of Billboard Number One hits the band has had.
177 million: Total number of album sales in the U.S. making them the RIAA’s top certified band in Gold & Platinum Program history.
600 million: The number of albums The Beatles had sold worldwide as of 2014.
The financial impact of The Beatles today is bigger than any other music artist in history either living or deceased. What has ultimately helped the Fab Four’s staying power in business terms is being a first mover, which means they were the first in their category and came to embody a significant moment in time.
Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver said, “It’s remarkable for a band that stopped recording in 1970, that they still have such interest (today).”
Between 1962 and 1970, The Beatles’ record sales were worth £17 million – roughly £340 million ($500 million) in today’s money, yet the four members of the group were only worth £1 million (£20 – £30 million now) in total in 1968. By raising their take to 2 pence a record, EMI signed them on for another 5 years. The year after this contract was renegotiated (in 1967), 30% of EMI’s profits came from The Beatles, and EMI in turn completely dominated the record market, taking an unprecedented 40% share. Put another way, one in eight of all records sold in Britain in 1968 were Beatles records.
If, as the unfortunate Dick Rowe had suggested, guitar bands really were on the way out, it’s hard to imagine something going out of fashion in a more spectacularly successful manner.