Did The Beatles treat Pete Best badly?
‘We were cowards when we sacked him’
August 1962 The Beatles are finally of a threshold of breaking in to the big time. After a five year apprenticeship and numerous name changes they finally have a settled lineup, with a regular named drummer, rather than a succession of locums who changed from gig to gig.
Pete Best first met the other Beatles through the Casbah Club. This was an ad hoc venue established in the cellar of the Best family home by his mother, Mona. The (then) Quarry Men played the Casbah regularly and were friendly with Mona. Paul had even helped paint the cellar as he explains in Anthology.
Pete Best’s mother Mona ran the Casbah Coffee Bar in Liverpool …. We’d started to go round there and ended up painting the place…. it was our club
Pete had a drum kit so he would sometimes sit in with us. He was a good drummer, and when Hamburg came up he joined us. He was a very good-looking guy, and out of all the people in our group, the girls used to go for Pete.
A few months younger than Paul, Pete had his own band: The Blackjacks. He was also a close friend of Neil Aspinall, a key member of The Beatles entourage. Aspinall rented a room in the Best house. It would later transpire he was also having a secret affair with his landlady, and was the biological father of Pete’s half brother.
In the summer of 1960 the (recently renamed) Beatles were invited by local impresario, Alan Williams, to do a residency in Hamburg. For this they would need a drummer and so they invited Pete to an ‘audition’. The term was grand and misleading, as there were no other candidates for the job. Nonetheless, the other three appeared to be happy with their new bandmate at this stage.
In Hamburg, Best survived the marathon sessions at the Indira Club. When The Beatles returned to Liverpool made a big impression on the teenage girls who were the band’s keenest fans at the Cavern. By 1961 his mother was heavily involved in arranging their schedule in Liverpool, Williams having been pushed aside. She was the closest thing they had to manager.
The vague discontent with Best’s playing and personality is hard to pin down. There obvious major musical or personal differences with the other band members. Nonetheless animosity against him set in.
By mid 1962 the other Beatles wanted Best out, though they never said this to his face. What they did was to make overtures to a drummer playing with the most prestigious of the Liverpool expat bands competing for Hamburg market share. Would Ringo consider joining them if a vacancy arose? He confirmed that he would.
The opportunity to strike came with George Martin’s decision re-record Love Me Do, using a session drummer. This was largely for technical reasons but in August 1962 Lennon told Brian Epstein they wanted Ringo to replace Pete before the new session in September. Taken aback, Epstein consulted with Bob Wooler, as to how this would go down with fans. Very badly was the blunt answer, confirming his own doubts. There were also potential legal ramifications as Best had signed his contract. Brian went back to the plotters. “I asked the Beatles to leave the group as it was.”
To Bryan’s surprise The Beatles would not reconsider. They wanted the deed done and done quickly. Furthermore, they insisted that their manager break the news. They would never explain their decision to their former friend, nor even look him in the eye.
Why this sudden ruthlessness? There are a number of theories:
a) ‘George Martin asked for Pete Best to replaced’
The proximate cause can be traced to the Abbey Road recording session in July 1962 at which Love Me Do was recorded. Producer George Martin was unhappy with Best’s drumming on Love Me Do. This was largely a technical matter — studio drumming required a different technique to that used performing live and Love Me Do was a challenging recording. Ironically, Martin would later reject Ringo’s drumming on the record for similar reason. In fact all The Beatles were technically poor at that first session.
Martin always insisted that he had no direct role in the sacking. “I never suggested that Pete Best must go. All I said was that for the purposes of the Beatles’ first record I would rather use a session man. I never thought that Brian Epstein would let him go. He seemed to be the most saleable commodity as far as looks went.”
b) Ringo made The Beatles better.
Ringo had stood in for Pete a few times in Hamburg. According to George Harrison in Anthology the improvement was instantaneous, a point of view that has been repeated by Paul McCartney. And yet Lennon later said, ‘Our best work was never recorded. We were at our best when we played the dance halls of Liverpool & Hamburg. The world never saw that.’ The drummer in that ‘best work’ was Pete Best .
b) ‘He didn’t get on with the others.’
There was some truth to the notion that Best was not a natural fit for the group dynamic, long established by the other three. Though Best considered Lennon a friend, he did not excel in the quick fire wit that the others revelled in. Essentially Pete stood a little apart, being naturally quieter and more introverted.
c) ‘All the girls liked Pete — and Paul was jealous’
Mona Best told Beatles biographer, Hunter Davies: “They were jealous and they wanted him out. Pete hadn’t realised what a following he had till he left. He was always so very shy and quiet”. Mona appears to have been referring primarily to Paul — an accusation he firmly denies (‘junk’).
Mona had good reason to feel aggrieved at the way her son’s firing was handled. The band asking him to sit for the remaining dates until Ring could join was particularly insensitive.
d) ‘Pete was a good drummer but Ringo was a better Beatle’
John Lennon’s famous assessment undoubtedly resonates. Yet it was not the accepted wisdom as The Beatles stood on the threshold of success.
On paper Pete Best had the ideal Beatles CV. He was the most traditionally handsome of the four — ‘I fancied him like mad’ said Cilla Black later. Pete also had an exotic background: the only band member with genuine Indian connections (he was born in India into an Anglo-Indian). Perhaps this contributed to his outsider status, as did his refusal to take drugs. Tellingly he doggedly declined to adopt the new ‘Beatle haircut’.
Nonetheless Best assumed himself to be part of The Beatles ‘family’ — the network of supporters that had who had given the band crucial support during their impoverished early years. In reality this relationship was essentially transactional — his value to them was in his drum kit.
The blow when it came seems entirely unexpected. When a shell shocked Pete from him meeting with Bryan at NEMS with the news, Neil Aspinall was incensed and had to be talked out of resigning in sympathy. Doubtless he was not looking forward to his next conversation with Mona.
John Lennon said a lot of wild things about Beatle bad behaviour in his notorious Rolling Stone interview in 1971. Determined to correct pious myths about supposed Fab Four saintliness, he went to the other extreme (‘it was like Fellini’s Satyricon’). Were the other Beatles ‘cowards’ to oust Pete Best? No, this was in the best interests of the group. What was not justifiable was the brutal, underhand way that they got Brian Epstein to carry out their wishes.
This left Best in a bleak psychological place as Beatlemania swept Britain in the year following his departure. Pete, in a Dickensian twist, went to work in a sliced-bread factory and would never met his former bandmates again. And yet as Hunter Davies has pointed out, missing out on fame meant that he also escaped the high price paid for it experienced by the others.
Financial compensation also came in the 1990s in a personal call from Paul McCartney. Recordings from the sessions Best played on were being released on Anthology — and the royalties would dwarf any standard pension plan.