Friday, March 30, 2018

The Beatles: the Decca audition tape (1962)

(various labels, 1982 and later)

1962 ended with the Beatles on the cusp of success and renown they could not have imagined; by the time they played the last show at their Top Ten Club residency on New Year's Eve, they were well on the road to destiny. But the year had begun very differently, on a freezing-cold morning in London with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best in the awkward position of attempting to sell themselves as recording artists in a setting totally unfamiliar to them: in the Decca studios under the supervision of a young A&R man named Mike Smith. "Audition" was a kind of misnomer, as Mike had already seen the band live and determined that they were good enough to be signed to the label (a decision ultimately overturned by his superior Dick Rowe), so this was really a "recording test" presumably to determine the contents of what might have been the group's first commercial release. The supposedly in-the-bag nature of the gig may explain why they ended up recording fifteen numbers at the session: with the band based in faraway Liverpool, it would potentially allow Decca to program several follow-ups and perhaps an LP.

For the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, the Decca date was the culmination of a fevered two months of work since November 9, 1961, when he had met the band after being captivated by one of their legendary afternoon performances at the Cavern. Epstein knew the band was extraordinarily good, and as John put it, that they "had something." It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that the discussions and recordings with Decca would end in a long-term contract for the band, and it must have been a source of considerable heartbreak to all involved when Rowe heard the tape and rejected them (choosing instead to sign the Tremeloes). While hindsight makes it easy to ridicule Decca's decision, we now have the luxury of being able to hear what Rowe heard, and quite frankly his hesitation is more than understandable, assuming one doesn't allow some leeway for the first-time jitters of recording in a real studio. (The Beatles had done a professional recording session before, but they were backing someone else and were playing in a high school auditorium.) Considering how many waves the Beatles had made in 1960 and 1961 in Liverpool and Hamburg, and how deeply Epstein believed in them, it's a major disappointment that this is the earliest "proper," well-recorded example we have of the group playing together. Even the most hardcore fan and apologist is bound to find the majority of these performances curiously lifeless.

Not all of the contributing factors were the band's fault, though many were, and many will sound to someone unfamiliar with their history and context like excuses, one of the earliest instances of the Beatles' raw rock & roll sensibility clashing with the old-world entertainment business. It was too early in the morning (on New Year's Day even, with all hangovers thus implied) to play rock & roll. It was too freezing cold, the coldest January 1st in London in more than a half century. Because of equipment problems -- an issue that would repeat when they went to EMI later in the year -- they couldn't use their own amps, and were unaccustomed to the way they sounded in a closed-off room rather than a rowdy club. Smith, who had just been promoted and was still young and rather inexperienced, didn't really communicate heavily with the band, who were left floundering without the kind of give-and-take they expected. The three originals they played, probably at Brian Epstein's behest, were relatively new to their set and they didn't fully know their way around them. The set was scant on harmony vocals, thus de-emphasizing one of the most striking elements of their skill set. Mostly, however, there's no telling why they were so lackluster on this morning; they leaned heavily on songs they certainly knew backwards and forwards, and it should have been a simple enough task to play an extract of their Cavern repertoire in front of some microphones. But their playing is tentative and unremarkable, their vocals alternately robotic and embarrassingly amateurish, and they simply don't sound like a band that's about to hit the big time. The biggest problem is obviously Pete Best, whose rudimentary drum style and inability to keep time jut out badly, and keep the others off center; there's no source better than the Decca tape for determining why he'd be out of the band just over seven months later.

The order in which the songs were recorded on this date is unknown. The session proceeded in two chunks with a standard break in between. Each song had at least one rehearsal or runthrough before being laid down; no outtakes or false starts are known to survive. Because it's impossible to know the correct running order of the tunes, it's easiest to approach them with the divisions Lewisohn assigns to them in Tune In. First there are the songs that were passionate rock & roll favorites, staples of their stage act for years by this point: Barrett Strong's "Money," the Teddy Bears' "To Know Her Is to Love Her" (written by Phil Spector, with pronouns switched), Chuck Berry's "Memphis," Carl Perkins' "Sure to Fall" and Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting, Hoping." All five are sublime songs, and there are in fact fine versions of all of them by the Beatles, including of course their thundering rendition of "Money" at EMI for With the Beatles. However, none of them come off in this scenario. "Money" boasts some frantic drumming but John's ragged singing (his voice was underused on this day but this makes one wish for even less of him) and the extremely artificial-sounding enunciation on the backing vocals do it in. The band's dependably slick arrangement of "To Know Her" is fine, and John relaxes a bit on it, but everyone still sounds timid, afraid to hurt the tape. Pete's irksome rumbling on "Memphis" slightly offsets the sense that the band is so tight and cold and stiff they could break at any moment, and after a bridge in which they swing badly out of tune, the song ends so weakly it seems like it alone could justify someone from Decca asking them to move on. Pete again sucks the life out of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," a reliable cover for the band that's just dead this morning. The Carl Perkins song comes off best, with nice harmonies despite a bit of an affected country & western accent on everyone and Paul overdoing his part badly; but George's solo is an OK Perkins imitation and there's a bit more kick to the tempo.

Next there are the renditions of current chart hits, presumably meant to demonstrate the group's malleability to Decca, though these were all songs they already knew how to play and had worked up at shows. "Till There Was You," from The Music Man, had become a pop hit via Peggy Lee; a later recording would be one of the odder choices for official release on a Beatles album, but it has the distinction of boasting the worst vocal performance of the Decca tape by one Paul McCartney, whose falsetto somehow seems to invent new and increasingly grating audio frequencies for your listening pleasure. Pete and George both botch it as well, with a nightmarish solo and Pete constantly forgetting changes and completely unable to maintain tempo. Poor Paul tries to redeem himself with the Beatles' rock arrangement of "September in the Rain," a standard and a then-recent success for Dinah Washington, but the intro on which he's trying so hard for some sort of spontaneous swing is so sad that it's hard to listen to, and all the forced spirit seems to make him lose his way on the bass, making the already chaotic band behind him more lost yet; at bottom, however, it's just a poor choice of cover for them. A skeletal arrangement of Bobby Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby," one of the Beatles' few acknowledgements of the early '60s teen idol period, does offer a good chance for George to impress vocally, but they play it too fast.

The Beatles were known for the comic elements of their stage act, especially in Hamburg and pre-Epstein when there really were no holds barred, and this seems to have been something they wanted to emphasize at Decca, though it's natural to imagine the four "comedy" numbers they played as perhaps generating the most befuddlement on the part of Smith and his engineers. Two of the three (!) Coasters covers make sense; "Searchin'" is the big Leiber-Stoller classic taken on with gusto and a nice arrangement (but bad guitar solo), despite Pete's constant misplaced fills and rolls, that showcases Paul's "rock" voice better than anything else on the tape. "Three Cool Cats," also a Leiber-Stoller number, is more of an obscurity and gets a loose and fun performance out of the Beatles, complete with misterioso guitar hook by George. "Besame Mucho," however, is another weird choice that fails to play to the Beatles' strengths; its levity, as well as that of their humorous take on "The Sheik of Araby," which badly misses the mark, just falls flat without the context of audience participation and the energy of a live performance.

Of greatest interest to casual fans are the three Lennon-McCartney songs tackled with great trepidation here, none of which were ever re-recorded for the band's actual canon at EMI, though all three became at least minor hits for others after the Beatles made it big. The best by far is "Hello Little Girl," usually cited as the first complete song John ever wrote; it's both a surprisingly lovely song given that it's the work of a young teenager (inspired by an unknown old music-hall number he heard his mother singing) and actually a tight, good rendition, possibly their best performance at Decca. Apart from the band blending together nicely with a certain pleasing scrappiness (exactly the combination of spontaneity and precision -- which part is illusory? -- that was the core of the Beatles' appeal and was missing from their overly mannered sessions with Bert Kaempfert), offering ample evidence of what they could really do with a ballad, what separates the song is the genuine emotion and longing in John's vocal performance, and Paul's interplay with it -- listen to the way John sings "long lonely time" or to the surprising, unforced easiness in his repeated "mmhmm." It's the only time on this tape that any of the Beatles seems to surrender to a song, and it's entirely possible that it was purely coincidence that it was a number one of them wrote -- but just as likely that it was a signal pointed toward the future. (One other full Beatles recording of this song exists, from one of the 1960 home tapes, reviewed here as part of the bootleg Strong Before Our Birth.)

Paul's two songs are less appealing but both have major points of interest. "Love of the Loved" struggles with terrible lyrics but is an interesting composition, and it's something of a pity that the only way we can hear the Beatles play it is with Pete's mess of pounding and nonsense; Paul sounds enthusiastic but still terrified, littering his vocals with those telltale hard-Ks of his, while the rest of the band comes off as listless. (Note that they were still reluctant to play their own songs at this point outside of intimate circles; they generally only came out publicly at the Cavern residency. Brian saw their skills as composers as a selling point for them, so it's probable that he wanted them trotted out for this session.) "Like Dreamers Do" is an extremely tentative performance and Paul's so nervous he can't put across its romance convincingly, but, if you can listen underneath that, you can hear how surprisingly inventive and catchy the song itself is. Luckily, someone at Aardmore & Beechwood did just that -- after Decca passed on the Beatles, Brian took the tape to various record labels and was getting desperate when he caught an ear at EMI; "Like Dreamers Do" is the song that led the record company's publishing arm to lock Parlophone into signing the Beatles, which is especially ironic since the band never recorded it themselves again. It's reasonable to say, however, that without this specific song none of us would know who the Beatles were, and things would be very very different.

The Decca recordings began to show up in low quality on bootlegs during the late '70s (note that John Lennon thought he had found it on the bootleg market at one point and sent it to Paul, but in fact the tape he'd located consisted of BBC performances from some time later, so it's no wonder he was so surprised by how good it was), but copyright ambiguity permitted better releases of the tracks in various configurations on numerous labels beginning in 1982. Almost none of these are complete, routinely omitting the three Beatles originals. To my knowledge there isn't really a definitive release of these songs commercially available, and the Beatles now own the tape so it's no longer likely that one will ever exist. (A third of the audition is included on Anthology 1, though "Searchin'" is crossfaded from a McCartney interview; the other inclusions are "Three Cool Cats," "Like Dreamers Do," "Hello Little Girl" and -- weirdly -- "The Sheik of Araby.") But it's extremely easy to track down all of the songs online, and Purple Chick's bootleg I Hope We Passed the Audition features the whole shebang in excellent quality. This ultimately is a breeze to listen to, and every Beatles fan should make their way through it once, but it's one of the very few scraps of Beatles lore that features almost nothing worth savoring outside of its historical context.

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