The Last Secret of The Beatles

Why was Pete Best really fired?

Pete Best (Image: Wikipedia)

Is it possible that we may not know the truth about the most famous firing in the history of pop music? 

There have been millions of words written about the Beatles. These luscious characters, briny stories and brothy myths are possibly the most recounted and retold legends of our era. Yet one of the remarkable things about the Beatles hagiography (a word I do not use lightly) is that one of its’ most interesting chapters may remain obscured. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

I am fairly convinced we have been lied to about the real reason drummer Pete Best was ousted from the Beatles on August 16, 1962, five weeks before they recorded their debut album for Parlophone. 

What follows is just a theory. But I think the circumstantial evidence is pretty compelling. 

Circa mid-1962, the Beatles were about to break into the mainstream music industry. Although their manager, Brian Epstein, wasn’t that much older than John, Paul, George, and Pete, he was of an entirely different class and social strata than the band. Brian Epstein never was one of the gang, not even close, and he was certainly aware of this. But the Beatles’ day-to-day manager and roadie/driver, Neil Aspinall, was both the same age as the group and an active part of their inner circle. 

In addition, since the inception of the Beatles, Mona Best had been exerting a powerful influence on the group. More than any Beatle parent (by far), she was involved in the band’s life and supported their dreams in every way she could. Mona Best felt such a strong connection with the young musicians of Liverpool that she started a venue in her basement. The Casbah Club, opened underneath the Best household in the autumn of 1959, would become the first real showcase room for the nascent Beatles; in addition, it was their home away from home where they regularly met, rehearsed, and wrote songs when they wanted to get out of their front rooms. Mona’s son, Pete, would join the Beatles in August of 1960, on the eve of their first trip to Hamburg (we note that Pete was not a novice drummer at this point, and had regularly been gigging with a combo called the Blackjacks). 

The Casbah Club in Liverpool, England (Image: TripAdvisor)

In the early spring of 1962, John, Paul, George, and Pete signed a record deal with Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI. A few months before the deal was signed, Neil Aspinall had begun an affair with Mona Best. As the Beatles prepared to go into the recording studio to make their first major label recordings, Mona Best was pregnant with Aspinall’s child. 

I believe that Brian Epstein was so threatened by the potential of an Aspinall/Best alliance that he stage-managed Pete Best’s dismissal from the band. Pete Best was fired on August 16; Vincent “Roag” Best, the son of Neil Aspinall and Mona Best, would be born exactly fifteen days later. 

This is important: I want you to stop for a second and try to forget everything you know about The Beatles myth and everything you’ve read about them, and really think about what this means:

It is midsummer 1962. The Beatles are on the cusp of the big time. Manager Brian Epstein’s right hand man, who is far closer to the band than he is, is about to have a child with the mother of the band’s drummer. In addition, this mother is someone who the band likes and respect, and has always been close to their dreams. 

Look at this from Epstein’s perspective. He had to have been worried that Neil Aspinall, Mona Best and Pete Best were going to form an alliance that could jeopardize his control over the band at exactly the time when they had the golden ring within their sight. Picture Brian Epstein: paranoid, pill-taking, insecure, on the verge of making a life-long dream come true and making a splash down south in London; the idea of an Aspinall/Best alliance had to have made his head explode. Even if we take Mona out of the picture (unlikely, considering the band rehearsed in her basement), Epstein had to have been acutely aware that the Beatles’ day-to-day manager was (very) shortly going to be the father of the drummer’s brother, creating an organic alliance that was bound to change the power dynamic. 

 

AUDIO: Brian Epstein interviewed by Murray the K (1967)

Epstein also sensed that the Beatles, pragmatic young men who wanted success as much as he did, would probably side with him if he attempted a power play (he likely remembered how quickly they had dumped their first manager Alan Williams, when a better opportunity presented itself). Likewise, we also must assume (and yes, I know there’s a pile of assumptions here), that Epstein sensed that Aspinall would likely side with John, Paul, and George over Pete, Mona, and changing nappies, and this shows Epstein’s calculated brilliance at work (or his willingness to take a high-stakes risk).

Now let us talk about some of the oft-repeated stories attached to Pete Best’s departure from the Beatles. The most common one is that he wasn’t good enough for The Beatles and/or George Martin. I’m calling bullshit on this, and there’s a pile of solid reasons why. 

By mid 1962, Pete Best had played hundreds of gigs with the Beatles. Pete Best had provided the backbeat for their rise to domination over Liverpool’s ballrooms and Hamburg’s nightclubs, and he was plenty good enough to do that. Not one contemporary account says anything about Best being a crappy drummer. If Best had been as shitty as myth has made him out to be, he would have been out of the Beatles halfway through their first Hamburg run. 

There is also some convincing aural evidence testifying to Pete’s competency. By far, the best and most representative recordings of Pete Best with The Beatles are the Beatles’ two appearances on BBC’s Saturday Club, recorded in Manchester on March 7 1962 and June 11 1962. (The two better-known recordings of Best and the Beatles, the Tony Sheridan sessions from June of 1961 and the Decca audition on 1/1/62, both lack the high energy and spontaneity of the Manchester sessions, and aren’t nearly as well recorded.) The six songs taped at the two Manchester sessions display that Best played strong and tight, with a significantly harder kick drum and much louder and tighter snare-hand than Ringo Starr. Although Best may lack Starr’s finesse, he makes up for that with a raw but accurate energy. He truly pumps and drives the band, playing with a whacking Memphis-meets-Military style somewhere between D.J. Fontana, Bobby Graham (more about him shortly), and Tony Meehan of the Shadows…which is all to say that on the March 7 and June 11 sessions, Best sounds like a cross between Tommy Ramone and Don Powell of Slade. What Pete most decidedly does NOT sound like on the two Saturday Club sessions is someone who couldn’t keep a beat or couldn’t play the drums; in fact, quite the opposite. (I will note that Best has a distinctive habit of doing a pick-up with the kick right before the snare hit on the second beat – think of it as the Chiffons/Shirelles beat — which gives all the material a fairly pronounced swing, not unlike what Charlie Watts gave to the Stones; it is somewhat alien to the Beatles’ style we have become used to.) More than any one piece of evidence, the 3/7/62 and 6/11/62 recordings show that the myth of Best being an inferior or insufficient player is complete bullshit. I will also mention that the March 7 recording was made roughly 36 hours after I was born, so there’s that. 

Early Beatles press photo (Image: eBay)

Next, we contend with the oft-told story that George Martin rejected Pete Best and/or encouraged The Beatles to engage a better drummer. I am going to concretely disprove that myth and toss it out of the window for all eternity in six syllables: Bobby Graham and Clem Cattini. 

This idea may seem supremely foreign to any band that came of age in the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond: When a self-contained pop/rock combo arrived at a major London recording studio for a session in the early and mid-1960s, there was virtually zero expectation that the drummer they walked in with would be playing on the finished record. This is the reason that Graham and Cattini play on almost every pop, rock, and beat record of the era. (Even a cursory list would double the length of this article; suffice to say that Graham, in particular, is the sound of the British invasion. The snap and oomph he brings to nearly all of the early hits of the Kinks, Them, the Dave Clark 5, the Pretty Things, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Et al., helped define the sound of the genre itself.)

It would have been extremely unlikely that an experienced producer like George Martin, working for a gigantic company like Parlophone, would consider using an unproven drummer on a session. Nor would Martin have ever used that as the basis to fire a drummer. What bands did in the studio and what they did on stage were considered entirely different parishes; the studio was Parlophone’s concern, the live performances the domain of the band, their management, their booking agent and the promoter (and there’s zero evidence that any promoter ever said, “Dump that Pete Best!”). Seriously: If the Beatles had walked in with Paul’s granny on bongos, George Martin wouldn’t have asked them to fire her; he would have just said, let’s bring in a session bongo player. The actual competency of the Beatles’ drummer was of so little concern to George Martin and Ron Richards that, like all contemporary record producers, they already had a session drummer in place when the Beatles walked into the studio to record “Love Me Do.” The presence of drummer Andy White at minute one of the very first Beatles recording session is plenty of evidence that neither The Beatles, Brian Epstein, George Martin, or Ron Richards used “competence” as an excuse to fire Best, since there was no expectation he would play in the studio anyway. 

 

VIDEO: Pete Best on Late Night With David Letterman 7/14/82

Is it possible there were other reasons, either due to personality or musicality, which made John, Paul, and George say, “Oh, Ringo, that’s the one we want”? Oh, absolutely. But the circumstantial evidence that Epstein engineered Pete’s ouster because he feared a Best/Best/Aspinall alliance is at least compelling enough as to make us wonder why it has never been thoroughly investigated. I mean, come on: Are you telling me that when Brian Epstein found out the Beatles’ day-to-day manager was going to have a baby with the drummer’s mother, HIS BRAIN DIDN’T START TO LEAK OUT OF HIS EARS?!? It is ludicrous that this theory hasn’t been widely discussed or investigated. 

Now, none of this – not a word, truly – is intended to diminish the considerable skills and charms of Ringo Starr; and none of this, not a word, is to say that the Beatles weren’t possibly, or even likely, better off with Ringo. It is simply to say that there’s a very significant chance that the real story regarding why Pete Best was suddenly ousted from the Beatles has been obscured. 

 

AUDIO: The Beatles BBC Sessions with Pete Best

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

4 thoughts on “The Last Secret of The Beatles

  • October 22, 2021 at 6:19 pm
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    No, this is NOT competent drumming.

    Reply
  • October 27, 2021 at 1:12 pm
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    I TOTALLY disagree with this statement: “By mid 1962, Pete Best had played hundreds of gigs with the Beatles. Pete Best had provided the backbeat for their rise to domination over Liverpool’s ballrooms and Hamburg’s nightclubs, and he was plenty good enough to do that. Not one contemporary account says anything about Best being a crappy drummer. If Best had been as shitty as myth has made him out to be, he would have been out of the Beatles halfway through their first Hamburg run.”
    The proof he couldn’t cut it is 2 fold:
    1. George Martin hired a studio drummer after their first studio “audition” when they recorded “Love Me Do” and a few other songs.
    2, Hear it for yourself on Anthology 1 – oddly enough the recording that ended up making Pete Best a millionaire – Love Me Do is a mess. The Beatles were a “BEAT” group. Pete decides to alter the beat during the Bridge and barely gets back to the original beat for the verse. Teenagers like to dance to Beat groups and that recording would have made any dancer leave the dance floor.
    Ringo was an MAJOR UPGRADE technically.
    I like the supposition that Brian needed to rid himself of the Aspinal / Best union and while it might also have been part of the whole package that made Pete less appealing when it comes down to it Ringo was a better more imaginative drummer.

    Reply
  • October 28, 2021 at 10:32 am
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    Who knew! Who knows?! Who would really know? Who shouldn’t dare tell! Who’ll stop the rain? Who shall know tomorrow? Who’ll be the next in line! Zak Starkey’s granddaughter!!! VOGUE BEST

    Reply

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