It was New Year's Eve 1961. A quartet of very young and very hopeful rock musicians who called themselves the Beatles stuffed themselves into the van of their road manager, Neil Aspinall. The four Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and drummer Pete Best, were naively confident.
A young assistant A&R man from Decca Records named Mike Smith had seen the boys perform at their local Liverpool haunt, the Cavern Club, and was quite impressed, perhaps more so by the enthusiastic crowd reaction than the music itself. Based on this live performance, Smith informed the boys' manager, Brian Epstein, that he'd allow the band to audition for him and his boss, senior A&R man Dick Rowe, at Decca Studios in London.
The audition date was set for New Year's Day, January 1, 1962. It was a freezing, snowy day as the boys crowded into Aspinall's cramped van. The journey to London would have normally taken four to five hours, but as luck would have it, their driver got lost and ten hours were consumed. The boys huddled close together inside the van to combat the freezing cold.
They finally arrived in London around 10PM, in time, as John Lennon recalled, "to see the drunks jumping into the Trafalgar Square fountain." According to Pete Best, instead of wisely resting up for the biggest audition of their lives, the Beatles indulged themselves and did a good bit of New Year's Eve drinking.
New Year's Day, they trooped into the Decca recording studios at around 11AM and were joined by Epstein, who had traveled to London by train to be at the audition. Mike Smith arrived a bit late and was admittedly a bit hungover from the previous night's festivities. To the boys' dismay, he testily informed the Beatles that their own amps were substandard and they would have to use the studio's equipment instead.
The recording session lasted about one hour. At Epstein's insistence, they sang fifteen songs, a mixture of old rock standards, show tunes, and a few novelty songs. Just three original Lennon-McCartney songs were included: "Love of the Loved," "Hello Little Girl," and "Like Dreamers Do."
The boys' nervousness was evident, although they became more confident as the minutes passed. Paul remembered being scared of "the red light" that kept flashing on in the room. Also, strangely, John Lennon, who was to be the dominant singer on the early Beatles records, only sang lead on one or two of the songs. Paul took command, and George took the lead on several of the songs, while John took a back seat that day. Worst of all was drummer Pete Best, whose drumming for the audition was flat, heavy, and plodding.
It wasn't a "great" audition, but after it ended, everyone seemed happy enough, as Mike Smith informed the young hopefuls that he "saw no problems" and that he'd let them know his decision "in a few weeks." Brian Epstein left the audition believing the contract was as good as signed. Before their horrendous, cold, snowy journey back to Liverpool, he took the boys to a restaurant in Swiss Cottage and allowed them to order wine.
After their return to Liverpool, the Beatles resumed their usual schedule of playing the clubs, while dreaming of becoming major Decca recording stars in the near future. After nervously waiting for a happy verdict for several weeks, Brian Epstein finally got through on the phone to Decca Records to A&R man Dick Rowe. The words from Rowe must have hit him in the face like a bucket of cold water.
"Groups with guitars are on the way out," Rowe informed him, bluntly and unsympathetically. These words were to become one of the most infamous quotes in the history of show business.
After the initial shock, supposedly, Rowe continued by saying that "the Beatles have no future in show business" and condescendingly advised Epstein that, "You have a good record business down there, Mr. Epstein, why don't you go back to that?"
Epstein, still shell-shocked, told Rowe, "You must be out of your mind!" and told him his boys were someday "going to be bigger than Elvis Presley." Rowe, no doubt, suppressed his laughter and may have even rolled his eyes as the conversation ended. And thus, Dick Rowe was cemented in music history as "the man who turned down the Beatles."
A few short months later, the Beatles were signed by a subsidiary of EMI called Parlophone. They were to become the most popular group in the world and would go on to sell hundreds of millions of records and albums around the world. And that, as they say, was history.
But Dick Rowe (1921-1986) was to go to his grave denying his epithet. According to Rowe, it was actually Mike Smith who gave the Beatles the thumbs-down.
That same New Year's Day of 1962, another fledgling band, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, had also auditioned at Decca. Rowe claimed, "I told Mike he'd have to decide between them. It was up to him -the Beatles or Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. He said, 'They're both good, but one's a local group, the other comes from Liverpool.' We decided it was better to take the local group. We could work with them more easily and stay closer in touch, as they came from Dagenham."
Poor Dick Rowe.
After the fateful rejection of the Fab Four, he was actually to sign The Rolling Stones (based on a recommendation by George Harrison), The Animals, The Moody Blues, The Zombies, Then (featuring Van Morrison), The Small Faces, and Tom Jones. Even the Beatles' later producer at EMI, George Martin, was to come to Rowe's defense and state that he would have turned down the Beatles on the basis of the mediocre Decca audition tapes.
Even after the rejection, Brian Epstein kept trying, negotiating with Decca, and even offering to buy 3,000 copies of any record the Beatles made. Rowe claimed he was not informed of this offer and had he known, he would definitely have signed the group. But as they say, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, wouldn't we all have a merry Christmas."
And the Beatles -how did they feel about Dick Rowe? George Harrison's recommendation of the Rolling Stones to Rowe would seem to indicate no hard feelings, at least on his part. But after their success, John Lennon was listening as someone spoke of the Beatles' Decca rejection, and someone said that "Dick Rowe must be kicking himself now."
Lennon replied, "I hope he kicks himself to death."
And Mike Smith didn't get completely off the hook, either. He remembered seeing the Beatles in London after they became famous. In true Liverpool fashion, the boys stood on the pavement and gave him a two-fingered salute.