Sunday, January 1, 2017

When The Beatles Were Turned Down

A new year has begun, rock and roll is out of style, and solo singers dominate the charts.  Groups that play guitar music don't stand a chance.
Is rock that bad off at the start of 2017?  Actually, I was talking about 1962.
At the beginning of 1962, rock and roll was dormant to the point of disappearing altogether, what with Jerry Lee Lewis banished for marrying his cousin, Chuck Berry in jail, Buddy Holly dead, and Elvis Presley having been turned into a mainstream pop singer.  And it was in this milieu that the Beatles - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best - went into a Decca Records studio in London for an audition.  It was fifty-five years ago today, and it's actually kind of scary to think that we're marking double-nickel anniversaries in Beatledom.
The Beatles did indeed spend New Year's Day, 1962 auditioning for Decca, one of the biggest record companies in the United Kingdom.  They spent an hour in the studio and recorded a set of American rock and roll songs and pop tunes, along with some of their own original numbers, that were selected by their manager, Brian Epstein. After a straightforward run-through of their set list, producer Mike Smith (not to be confused with the Dave Clark Five's lead singer) was so bowled over he wanted to sign them immediately, but his superior, a fellow by the name of Dick Rowe, overruled him and turned the Beatles down.  Not only did he think they sounded too much like Cliff Richard's backing group, the Shadows, but he decided that, because of the popularity of solo singers in Britain (and also America, by the way), electric-guitar groups were on the way out.  "These boys won't make it," he told Epstein.  "Go back to Liverpool, Mr. Epstein, you have a successful business there."
Well, that's the short version of the story. And even though Rowe's decision is considered one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of show business, it was probably the right decision at the time.  The pop charts in both the U.K. and the U.S. showed no signs of a change of trend back to rock and roll.  Decca was kind enough to at least have given the Beatles an audition; most labels in Britain wouldn't even grant them that opportunity.  And Brian Epstein, as a record store manager in a backwater British seaport city managing and promoting a rock band at a time when rock music was out and claiming that the Beatles would be bigger than Elvis, must have seemed as preposterous as, say, a home-electronics department manager at a big-box store outside Superior, Wisconsin managing and promoting a rock band today while claiming that they'll be bigger than the Beatles - at a time when rock music is out - would seem.  
Also, Epstein is believed to have deliberately sabotaged the Beatles by having them play choosing the fifteen songs they played - twelve covers and three Lennon-McCartney originals - knowing that most the familiar songs he chose, such as "September In the Rain" and "The Sheik of Araby," weren't the best examples of their awesome talent for doing definitive cover versions and knowing also that the originals he had them do weren't their best examples of their songwriting abilities.  (After hearing the Decca recording of their minor ditty "Like Dreamers Do," I concluded that I wouldn't have signed them either.)  Epstein later admitted that he was partial to EMI signing the Beatles, but no one at EMI would bother with them . . . until George Martin, the director of the EMI "junk" label Parlophone, auditioned them in June 1962 and didn't think much of the group.  He decided to sign them (although Best was replaced by Ringo Starr thereafter), figuring he'd have nothing to lose.
And everything to gain.
It's all good and fine to think that history can be repeated, that another band like the Beatles can literally come out of nowhere, which is what Liverpool was, and bring rock and roll back to life, but as I explained in great detail back in January 2014, things are far different today from what they were in the early sixties.  Not only is the infrastructure of the recording profession completely different, thanks to streaming and all that, but how can guys with guitars get any attention when people like Kanye West and Beyonc√© keep sucking up all the oxygen and the critical acclaim?  Since I wrote about the slim chances for a rock and roll comeback in 2014, a few newer artists have caught my attention, such as guitarist/singer Gary Clark, Jr. and Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett.  If white guys with guitars are considered uncool, then maybe a black guy with a guitar and a woman with a guitar, as Clark and Barnett are, respectively, can make guitar music cool again?  Good luck with that.  Many listeners view Clark's music as recycled Clapton or recycled Hendrix, while Barnett is viewed as recycled Dylan.  But most pop critics don't go for recycled sounds; they want something new, and how can you provide a new sound in an old form?     
Bands?  One up-and-coming rock band is a group called the Struts, a band out of England that recalls the 1970s-era Rolling Stones.  But that's still recycling. :-O
So, while Dick Rowe did sign the Rolling Stones to Decca after seeing the Beatles' success (and learning about the Stones from none other than George Harrison), maybe Rowe wasn't wrong when he said in 1962 that electric-guitar music was on its way out.  Maybe he was just ahead of his time.  Sure, guitar rock had a good run through the 1960s and 1970s, but afterward, that started to change.  Rowe lived long enough to see synth-pop and the rise of rap in the mid-1980s - he died in 1986 - and he got a glimpse of what would, quite frankly, be the future of popular music.
The biggest rock story of 2016 was not the Struts or Courtney Barnett or even Bruce Springsteen's receipt of the Medal of Freedom but the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Nirvana's Nevermind, sometimes thought of as rock's last important album.  The biggest rock story of 2017 will likely be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  But so what, when all that matters is to relive past glories in the absence of present ones?  With many rock bands going unsigned by record labels, and with rappers declaring their genre the new rock and roll, the act of living on past achievements and celebrating their anniversaries is nothing new for us rock fans, who continue hoping against hope that another eager producer will take a chance on another ambitious band and their equally ambitious manager . . . and get things going again.
But that hypothetical band from Superior sure do have their work cut out for them.  

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