By Rush Evans
Joining us now, Paul McCartney, the former Beatle…and Ringo Starr, the other former living Beatle…The only two living men who can say, ‘I was a Beatle.’”
That is how CNN’s Larry King introduced his two guests on his nightly interview program on June 27, 2007. Some 48 hours later, a 65-year-old gentleman with a Liverpudlian accent much thicker than McCartney’s or Starr’s is sitting across from me, very much alive. He was a Beatle, too.
Only McCartney and Starr can explain why they didn’t correct King on the point, though they are certainly aware that Pete Best was not a temporary stand-in or trivial footnote but a true, full-fledged founding member of the greatest band ever.
For two very busy years, in Liverpool, England, and Hamburg, Germany, Best pounded out the rhythm behind three band mates who were destined for greatness.
In 1962, Pete was dismissed from the Beatles by manager Brian Epstein, speaking on behalf of the other Beatles and producer George Martin, who didn’t like his drumming and didn’t want to use him in the studio.
The fans who saw the Beatles every day in Liverpool’s Cavern Club didn’t agree with Martin. They knew Pete as a great drummer, and he was easily the best-looking Beatle, the most popular with the girls.
While the band mastered its craft in sweaty club performances, Best logged more stage time during his two years as a Beatle than Ringo did in his eight years.
From 1960 to 1962, night after night, traveling to the gig meant walking from the floor of the back room of the club (where the band slept in Hamburg) out onto the stage. From ‘62 to ‘66, the road would take the life out of the Beatles’ live performances.
Thousands of screaming girls drowned out the music, and shoddy sound systems couldn’t capture it anyway (at Shea Stadium, the band was literally piped through the same PA that the announcers for baseball games used). John Lennon once said that the Beatles played their best during those first two years, and the world missed it.
It’s clear that four men quickly approaching 30 must have realized they needed to make music in fresh new settings that allowed for more creative control — yet the belief still persists that women broke up the Beatles. Although it doesn’t take a new Japanese girlfriend to facilitate change, it is fair to say that at least one remarkable woman played a huge role in the early development of the band.
McCartney and John Lennon had both lost their mothers while still in their teens. Best had a mother, an unusual, ambitious, doting and creative mother of three, one with a vision to turn the cellar of her own home into a hip rock and roll club.
The Casbah Coffee Club would be a place for coffee, Coke and great music you could dance to, with stars, stripes and Aztec symbols painted on the walls by the imaginative teens in the opening night’s band: the Quarrymen.
The iconoclastic Mona Best is where Pete’s story begins.
Goldmine: An obvious first topic: You must have had the coolest mom ever.
Pete Best: That’s an understatement. She was very full of life and very outgoing in her personality, and she had great ideas with the Casbah. She wanted to create a music venue for kids. She had a dream of bringing music to Liverpool, and the Casbah was her way of doing it.
GM: Were you motivation for her to create Casbah?
PB: No. The whole idea of the Casbah, the concept of it, was coffee bars in those days were the “in” thing, what was happening. Instead of terrorizing the house with all the friends we used to have, we had a great big cellar, which became the Casbah.
Mo said instead of running up and down the stairs, constant traffic in and out, up and down, she said, “Look, the cellar’s downstairs. Go ahead and make that into a den.” So we said, “What an idea!” We started throwing paint on the walls and all the other bits and pieces. Pretty shortly after that, she saw a television program about the 21s Irish Coffee Club in London. She was watching it and said, “I’m going to turn the cellar into a coffee club.” We all went, “Okay, when are we gonna start?” And she said, “We’re gonna start tomorrow.” And we started tomorrow. And then the Casbah evolved.
GM: Did she enjoy rock and roll music?
PB: Oh, very much so. “Family first, music second” was Mo’s philosophy in life. She loved the music that was around. She loved listening to music. She loved dancing to music.
When rock and roll was started, she loved rock and roll. Growing up in India, she loved Latin American music. She was full of rhythm. A woman who was that full of rhythm was a natural to enjoy music, and she did. And when the Casbah actually opened, she had live bands playing there seven nights a week. She was there; she was listening to live music. It was like going downstairs, and there was a band playing in your cellar. It was wonderful!
GM: Was there a crowd the first night?
PB: Yeah. The opening night of the Casbah, it was a bigger crowd than what we expected. We had visitors. Opening night, doors were supposed to open at seven. Four o’clock in the afternoon, there were people wanting to become members. We were expecting a crowd, but we weren’t expecting that many! We couldn’t get the people in there fast enough. So, [with] the Quarrymen, who were due to open it, I was saying put the show back half an hour. We eventually got the crowd under control. The place was heaving, every square inch, and the Quarrymen went on, without a drummer, and the place just erupted.
GM: The lineup of the Quarrymen at that time was John, Paul, George, and Ken Brown, all guitars. Had you seen them perform before?
PB: I’d seen George and Ken before, because they played with the Les Stewart Quartet. And when they came and told Mo that Les Stewart’s band had broken up, it was George who turned around and said, “I happen to know a couple of guys who aren’t doing anything at the present moment.” Mo turned around and said, “Bring ‘em down.”
And they turned out to be John and Paul. The deal was brought to them, and it was a residency [a regular recurring gig at the club]. Residencies were like gold in those days, [and they said] definitely, we’ll do it. So Mo said, What are you gonna call yourselves?’ So John said, “Well, we used to be called the Quarrymen.” Mo said, “Sounds fine to me, Quarrymen it be.”
Some decorating needed to be done, so we rolled the sleeves up — Aztec ceiling [painted by Lennon], rainbow ceiling [painted by McCartney], stars [painted by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison], all the other bits and pieces, which are still there today. That’s the amazing thing about it.
GM: Do you still live near there?
PB: We used to live above it. We’re only a stone’s throw away from it. Business offices are there, our recording studio, our production company, our edit suite, the Casbah’s there. It’s still home.
GM: Did you become a member while it was still the Quarrymen?
PB: No. You talking about the Beatles? [laughter]
GM: Sorry, I guess it’s presumed!
PB: No. I met them in August ’59, and I joined them in August ’60. What had happened is they’d stopped playing there. There was a bit of a dispute over money involving Ken Brown. He couldn’t play one night, and Mo gave him his cut, and the others objected, so they stormed off and said, “We’re not gonna play the Casbah again.” And, of course, they did.
Ken came up to me, and by this time, I had started messing around with drums. I’d seen Gene Krupa; I’d seen other bands come through, and he said, “How do you feel about forming a band?” I said, “Great!” He said, “You can be the drummer.” I said, “That’s great, Ken, but I haven’t got any drums.”
So we went and explained the situation to Mo, my mother, and she said, “Don’t worry about that.” So, the next thing was going to see a couple of friends of mine, good musicians, and I said, “We’re forming a band, you want to join?” They said, “Yeah, fine,” so we had our little group going. We played as the Blackjacks at the Casbah and around Liverpool until August 1960, and that’s when I got the phone call from Paul McCartney.
GM: So Paul and John knew you before, because of the Casbah, and also because they saw the Blackjacks play, right?
PB: Yeah, they still frequented the Casbah. They still socialized there. They still watched other bands there. Before the Cavern, the Casbah was musicians’ HQ. If you wanted to see a band, you came to the Casbah. If you wanted to meet, socialize, you came to the Casbah. That was the meeting ground. Of course, they’d seen me playing drums. When the offer came along, [I said,] “I’ll check it out with my boys,” which I did, and they turned around and said, “Go on, if you want to be professional. We’ve all got sensible jobs.”
GM: They wanted you for the band, but you still had to audition, right?
PB: The audition lasted about 10 or 15 minutes. They went off in a corner, pretended to scratch their heads, came back again, turned around and said, “You’re in.” At that time, Allan Williams, who was the manager, who was gonna take us all to Germany, walked in. They said, “Allan, meet Pete, the new drummer.” He said, “Now that you’ve already agreed, and you’ve been accepted into the band, it was already a foregone conclusion that you were gonna be in the band. The reason for the audition was we’d seen you playing drums. We’d seen how good you were; it was just in case you asked for too much money.” I said, “Okay, thank you very much,” and a couple of days after that, we were on our way to Hamburg! [laughter]
GM: So the original Beatles lineup that went to Hamburg was Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and you as the new drummer. You were all still so young to travel abroad and play in clubs. How old were you when the Beatles took that first trip to Hamburg?
PB: 18. George was still 17. [It] should’ve only been four weeks, [but it] wound up being four months. It was a whole new world. It was the first time we were away from home. We didn’t know that we were gonna be playing six, seven hours a night. I don’t think anybody bothered to ask. It was just like, “Wow, we’re going to Hamburg!” And off we went.
It was only when we got there that we found out, when we met [club owner] Bruno Koschmeider, and we said, “Where are we gonna play, and how long are we playing for?” Allan Williams probably knew, but he didn’t tell us so. [Koschmeider] said, “You’re playing six, seven hours a night, six, seven nights a week.” That was the first challenge. The second challenge was the living quarters.
We got stuck in the back of the Bambi Kino [club], which was the flea pit of the earth, so to speak. But it was rock and roll, and it was a big adventure to us. We found that the long hours that we were there turned us from being a mediocre band into a great rock and roll band, and that was just simply because of the fact we were playing day in and day out. You didn’t realize it at the time. The musicianship was growing, the maturity within the band was growing, the professionalism was growing. We knew how to pace ourselves. We knew how to crank the amp up. We became musicians.
GM: It’s as though the Hamburg clubs were like college for you. That’s when the crowds began to grow. At some point in Hamburg, the fans started coming to see the Beatles, as opposed to just going out to the club to see whoever was there, correct?
PB: We took the Indra. We thought we were gonna be playing the Kaiserkeller. Derry and the Seniors were playing the Kaiserkeller. And don’t get me wrong, they were lifting the roof off the place. The crowds were going, [and] Derry had them jumping through hoops. And then we walked in and saw it. It was just like, “Wow, we’re gonna be playing this? It’s gonna be great, look at this atmosphere.” Then we got told, “Oh no you’re not. You’re playing down there.” [laughter]
So we disappeared down the back end of this gritty little club with a couple of Germans sitting there arguing over the price of a beer. We walked in, and Bruno Koschmeider turned around and said, “That’s the challenge. This is where you’re gonna play, and I want you to turn it into another Kaiserkeller.” We had to build it up. The only way you can build it up is to play and have people here. So the first couple of nights, stragglers [were] coming in, the curiosity factor ... “Another band from Liverpool, silly name, the Beatles.” They came in, started to get interested in the music, the antics that were going on, crowds started to grow a little bit, grow a little bit, grow a little bit. All of a sudden, the weekend comes, you get there at seven o’clock, the place is jam-packed.
GM: Did the Kaiserkeller suffer accordingly?
PB: When Derry and the Seniors took a break, the crowd would migrate from the Kaiserkeller down to the Indra. They’d watch what was going on at the Indra for a while, then back to the Kaiserkeller, participate in the Kaiserkeller, watch Derry for a while, then shoot down again. You got your loyal fans after that. Instead of migrating, they just came and they stayed all the time. They became the regulars. And they grew and grew and grew.
GM: And by your second cycle in Hamburg, you would connect with singer Tony Sheridan, already an established star. Were you all familiar with Tony’s music?
PB: We’d seen Tony before. We were aware of Tony from the rock and roll show in England, “Oh Boy.” He was a household name to us. When we were in Hamburg, we found out that Tony was playing at the Top Ten Club, which was like 150 yards around the corner.
It was like, “This guy used to be on television!” So we’d go right around the corner on our break, we’d watch Sheridan, and then dart back. Our reputation was growing. The manager of the Top Ten Club approached us and said, “You wanna play the Top Ten Club?” [We said,] “We’ll think about it.” We were the Beatles, we could pick and choose. And he said, “We’ll pay you more money.” That was it, done deal, “We’ll start tomorrow!” [laughter]
GM: After that, the Beatles returned to Liverpool as quite a sensation, and Brian Epstein ran the local record store, NEMS, at the time. At what point did Brian Epstein’s relationship with the band begin?
PB: Epstein’s connections came along as a result of what transpired in Hamburg, because if it hadn’t been for Hamburg, if it hadn’t been for Sheridan, hadn’t been for playing with Sheridan, we’d have never recorded, “My Bonnie,” [the Beatles’ first commercial single release, with Tony Sheridan]. We could [call ourselves] “Polydor recording artists.”
We came back from Germany with a Polydor record due to be released. Interest grows, you know. And as a result of that interest, people were going into the shop to ask about ‘My Bonnie.’ Bill Harry had [music publication] Mersey Beat out then and was starting to chronicle the escapades of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat scene. People were more aware of who we were. I think it was people going in and asking questions. Brian became a little bit curious. “Okay, I’m hearing a lot about these guys and they only play 200 yards down the road at the Cavern.”
He had something in his mind because of the reputation that we had, because of all the publicity that was going on, because of Mersey Beat, because of demand for the group playing. Something was formulating in his own mind that he wanted to manage a group, that he was thinking about managing us. Maybe that was what was going through his mind at that time. But, of course, he saw us at the Cavern, asked us to come back and see him at NEMS, put the business deal to us. We went away and talked about it, and the final decision amongst everyone was, yeah, he was the right guy for the job.
It was a two-way thing. It had no strings attached to it. If it didn’t work, we walked, and the same with him, if he didn’t get on with us. Because he didn’t really know us, and we weren’t the most sensible of people. We were the Beatles! We can walk on water if we want to, that was the approach we had. Maybe he can’t get on with us, but fortunately, he did.
GM: Was there a sense that the band could see its future, but it needed a managerial presence?
PB: Mo had involved herself as much as she could, because even though I was handling the booking side of things, she was, in her own sweet way, approaching television companies and radio shows and all the other little bits and pieces, and said, “It’s not only London that’s got music. You’ve got a vibrant music scene and brilliant band, the Beatles. Get them on television, let people hear them.” But that was as far as she could go.
She said, “Look, I can’t be involved anymore. Much as I’d love to I can’t.” She had the Casbah, she had a club to run, a sick mother, and she had growing lads. So, when Brian came along, he’d heard about the input that Mo had had. One of the good things about it was that he came down, and he actually saw Mona, and he said, “I know that you’ve been involved with handling the boys before, and they’ve agreed that I’m gonna be their manager.” So, she said fine. He said, “Because of your involvement, how do you feel about that?” She said, “No problem at all. I can’t do any more for them.”
She had other priorities. The only thing she said was, “You’ve got a diamond there. Make sure you polish that diamond and treasure it, and you do a good job.” And away he went. So, she washed her hands of us as regards helping us. But it was up to Brian. I’ve always put that through to manners. He came from a well-brought-up family, and I think it was, “I can see the lady as being involved in helping them in the past, [I’ll want] to make sure that everything’s okay with her.” And he did!
GM: It was after he arrived that the Beatles effectively recorded an album’s worth of tracks in the studio, demos for the Decca label. I was always surprised that those 15 tracks never got a proper release as an album. Have you had hopes of them coming out that way?
PB: To us, it’s always been an audition. Regardless of what happened, it was an audition. When the first bootlegs came out, that was it. You had good bootlegs and you had bad bootlegs, the quality differed.
GM: I have one of them right here!
PB: You know what I’m talking about then! [laughter] As a session, it was an exciting month for us, simply because of the fact we had a German recording contract with the biggest label in Germany, Polydor. We wanted an English recording contract, just because of the pure domestics of the situation, [so we wouldn’t] have to go to Germany to record all the time.
We told Brian we wanted an English recording contract. So that was his first mission. He went to Decca, which was the biggest label at that time, and talked to Mike Smith, and Smith came down and saw the boys at the Cavern, loved what he saw, the excitement that was happening at the Cavern, the energy that was there. [He] arranged the record audition for Jan. 1, 1962. There’s two ways of looking at it: What a great way to start the year. And there’s another way of looking at it: What a day to start the year. The biggest audition in your life, and it’s on New Year’s Day after New Year’s Eve.
GM: How’d you guys get to London for the session? It’s a long drive from Liverpool.
PB: Neil [Aspinall] drove us down. It was New Year’s Eve. It was foggy. The funny thing was, the last words from Brian were, “You’ve got a major record audition tomorrow. We know it’s New Year’s Eve; don’t go out and celebrate.” “Of course, Brian, of course.” We were out in Trafalgar Square celebrating at two o’clock in the morning.
GM: Were you celebrating the New Year or the audition?
PB: Both! [laughter]
GM: The Decca audition still sounds good to me.
PB: There’s people who knock it, and there’s people who see justice in it. We had no choice in the material. That was Brian’s selection. I think what he was trying to do, because of the variety of material on it, was to show the versatility of the band.
The fact that it could do out-and-out rock, they could be Little Richard, they could be Chuck Berry, they could be Carl Perkins, they could be the Everly Brothers, they could sing country and western, they could sing ballads. And, of course, the original material [“Hello Little Girl,” “Love of the Loved,” “Like Dreamers Do”]. There weren’t too many bands in Liverpool at that time which could say, “Here’s a song that we wrote.”
GM: You were still in the band by the time of that first EMI session. That version of “Love Me Do” has a country feel to it, and your presence on it is very prominent, slower and different.
PB: That was what we were feeling at the time. We’d been told we had a record contract; we’d gone out to Germany to the Star Club. We’re told at the Star Club that we’ve got a recording date set for [the] sixth of June, ’62. When we went out to the Star Club, we were hit with the death of Stu Sutcliffe.
That version of “Love Me Do,” there’s a lot of sentiment in that. We may have been unaware of it at the time, but we were still suffering over Stu’s death, the bombshell. And we experimented with it, had guitar riffs in it, then we introduced the harmonica because of “Hey Baby,” [the Bruce Channel hit]. That went down well with the German audience. [We did a] slow version of it [with] slightly different harmonies just to give a little bit of kick.
One of the old tricks in rock and roll in those days was just to change the tempo. Play the audience a slow song, then all of a sudden you get them all up on the floor dancing. And if you listen to that version, there is a change in tempo in it. The change of tempo is simply due to the audience’s reaction, to get them on the floor. They’re all smooching away, then a little change. We tried it on the German audiences. We tried it on the English audiences. The kids in Liverpool liked it. That was the version we took to EMI.
GM: That recording finally saw release on the Beatles’ Anthology 1 in 1995, which also included nine other tracks on which you play drums. It took quite a few years for your drumming to really become part of the “permanent record” of the Beatles. Was that a sort of validation for you, a recognition of your contribution to the band?
PB: I could’ve wound up on one track, two tracks, but I ended up on 10 tracks.
GM: Are the 10 tracks chosen a good representation of what the band sounded like at the time?
PB: I think so. There’s music there from the Decca sessions, there’s music there from Polydor. I suppose it gives a good feel to what was going on at the time. But the way I look at it, fine; the royalties coming from it, wonderful! From that point of view, it was unexpected, but I’m not gonna argue! What’s nice about it, it could’ve been one or two tracks, but they gave me 10 tracks out of 60 tracks. That’s a little bit like, “Thank you for the hard work that you put in on the trenches.”
GM: I’d never known until recently that the head of Apple, Neil Aspinall, who started out as the Beatles’ driver back in the Casbah days, is your brother Roag’s father. This is not in any of the prominent Beatles books! Did you work with him on the Anthology album?
PB: A lot of people have said that, because of the family connection. But it wasn’t. I stress this, to be quite honest, because a lot of people say, “Oh, he’s on the inside way for a few favors,” or something like that. It isn’t. Neil and I over the years, because of his position, and because of his involvement with me and with the family, we’ve never crossed boundaries. We’ve never discussed business. We talk to one another as friends, as family.
What happens with Apple is private to him. What happens with me, if he wants to know, I’ve got no problems. But at the end of the day, he was the head man of Apple. He’d bear all those responsibilities. You don’t cross that threshold. So, because of that, it was other people from Apple who approached, and amongst [whom] it was decided.
GM: Since you and he are family, and he has been so prominently tied to the Beatles for 45 years, it’s surprising that you have never crossed paths with any of the other Beatles in all these years.
PB: It’s a respect. He started off as a road manager. But the higher he grew up the ladder, okay, he’s holding secrets, he’s working deals, the Anthology, the “Cirque du Soleil,” the One [album], the Yellow Submarine ... a lot of that weighing on his shoulders. It’s not like [he was] saying, “I’d like to tell you something that’s happening, but keep it under your belt.” It’s not mine, mate, that’s your business.
If you want something released to the world, you release it. We’re friends, and we don’t cross that line.
GM: Would you be happy to run into Paul or Ringo?
PB: As I’ve said over the years, I have no fears of running into them. I’m not guilty about what I did.
GM: Here you are all these years later, playing drums in a rock and roll band again. Please tell me more about your life in 2007.
PB: All the good stuff! I wasn’t planning on coming back into show business. I’d carved a new career out [retired after 20 years with a British civil service job], family, I’ve got grandchildren and all the other bits and pieces. I got coerced — I think that’s the word for it — to do a one-off concert in Liverpool in ’88. I just got on and played some good rock and roll.
I sat down with my wife, Kathy, and she said, “You don’t know it, but you’re gonna go back into show business.” I laughed. I said, “No, this concert was for family archives, posterity.” That’s how Roag and I started playing double drums together. [Our mother] was still alive, and that would be the first and only time (that’s what we were thinking) in which she would see the eldest lad and the youngest lad on stage at the same time. As it [happened], we’ve been drumming ever since as a double-drum act.
Mona Best passed away in 1988, not long after seeing her first-born Beatle son play the drums again, doing so with her last-born son, one who never would have been born had it not been for those Beatle days at her beloved Casbah Club. Mona’s name appears on only one page in the massive authorized Beatles biography, “Anthology.”
Pete Best never profited from having been in the most glorified and celebrated musical act of all time until 1995, when the Anthology 1 collection was released, which included those 10 tracks on which Pete played drums.
It was a long-overdue musical and financial acknowledgement of Pete’s contribution to the band. Historically speaking, all 10 tracks needed to be heard by a wide audience in order to fully understand the story of the Beatles, because that’s where the real story always was.
In recent years, Pete has authored an autobiography (“The Best Years of the Beatles”), issued a documentary DVD (“Best of the Beatles”), released CDs with his Pete Best Band, and co-authored a coffee-table picture book of the Casbah with his brothers Roag and Rory (“The True Beginnings”).
He’s still on the road with his Pete Best Band, a tight live act with respectable and raucous versions of the cover songs and originals that the Beatles played in Germany nearly half a century ago. It’s what the world didn’t get to hear the first time around.
Did the Beatles make the right decision to replace Best with Ringo? We’ll just say that things worked out just fine, because by anyone’s measure, the band’s musical legacy is indisputably great. So who was the better drummer? The question is academic, but let it be said that Ringo was a great Beatle. And for his part, so was Pete.
It’s safe to say that had Pete remained a Beatle, the band’s records would have been dramatically different — in which direction it’s impossible to say. But if that’s true, so is the inverse: The Beatles could not have become what they became had it not been for Mona Best, for the Casbah, for Hamburg, for Stu Sutcliffe, for the Cavern — or for a rock and roll drummer named Pete Best.