Music — The fifth Beatle speaks out

The fifth Beatle speaks out

By Will Stewart

Pockets filled by Anthology, former Fab Four drummer goes on tour

If there ever was a man with a right to wonder, “What if?” it’s Pete Best. Best was the original drummer for The Beatles, performing hundreds of shows with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, many of them in Hamburg, Germany, in the early ’60s. He was fired by the group in 1962 to make room for Ringo Starr. Shortly thereafter, The Beatles took the world by storm and become the biggest name in pop music history. Best joined other bands, but never approached the heights his former band mates did.

Best spoke with the Hippo last week from the Mediterranean resort city of Cannes, France, where he was attending the Palais des Festivals to promote a soon-to-be-released documentary called Best of the Beatles. He’ll be performing with The Pete Best Band at the Palace Theatre April 22. Editor’s note: Best’s concert was postponed — possibly until August — shortly before press time. Watch this space for further details.

Q: So I hear you and your band are coming to Manchester. What will the show be like?

Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. It’s a big-sounding band. It’s a six-piece band, double drums. My younger brother Roag and myself both play drums in the band. Everyone sings in the band. It’s a lot of crowd-participation numbers — we love to see the crowd involved and enjoying themselves. But as we turn ’round and say, it’s not a copy band, you know. It’s not a Beatles tribute band or anything like this. We are playing music from the ’50s, music which I played out with Beatles in Germany and there’s some Beatles favorites in there as well. It’s a very comprehensive show which covers a lot of material of a number of years. It’s a very much fun show.

Q: What have you been up to these days?

Well, a lot of time is spent with the band. We’re touring seven months of the year, all over the world. We’ve got America, Spain, Italy, back into Germany, then to Greece. Then were back again into America in August, the West Coast and then into Canada. In September and October, we’re back to the East Coast and the Midwest. I’m also involved with a ... one of the reasons I’m here [in Cannes] at the present moment ... we’ve got a documentary coming out called Best of the Beatles, and that’s to be released globally around the middle of this year. So, we’re looking at doing promotion for that. There’s a lot of things that’s keeping us busy at the present moment. But it’s a lovely position to be in.

Q: Indeed. Tell me a little about your time in Hamburg with The Beatles.

That was the cornerstone, the first trip out to Hamburg. We went out as amateurs and we came back professionals. We were — it transformed us. The hours we were playing — the six, seven hours a night, six, seven nights a week. We didn’t realize it at the time but we were transforming, becoming this powerhouse unit, which basically came back to Liverpool and took Liverpool and the northwest of England by storm.

But apart from that, I mean, it was just a wonderful experience. Hamburg was just a total culture shock to us because [starts laughing] ... we knew that Liverpool was a port and we knew that Hamburg was a port, but of course when we got out there we found out that we were playing in the biggest red-light district and entertainment corridor in the world at that time. And, you know, we very soon became the new, young kings of Hamburg and, you know, we found that there was booze and women in total abundance. And being young, healthy lads we helped ourselves as much as we could.

But joking aside, it was hard work. We enjoyed ourselves — a lot of good memories about Hamburg, they were great times. We made a lot of good friends there and, of course, we got our first recording contract out there with Polydor, so that was another milestone in The Beatles’ career.

Q: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but what’s the story of your leaving the band?

It wasn’t a case of me leaving to be quite honest. I didn’t have any say in the matter. I’d been with the band about two years, nearly to the day, in fact. I’d known ‘em for three, but played with them for two. We’d played the Cavern the night before, I think it was ‘round about August 16 or 17 [1962] or something like that and Brian Epstein [The Beatles’ new manager] came up at the end of the night and said, “Pete, I would like to see you in the office in the morning.”

I thought no more about it — just thought it was another business meeting. When I went in there the next morning, ‘round about 10 o’clock, it wasn’t the normal grind that I normally saw. He seemed very agitated, he seemed very, you know, very concerned. He wasn’t his normal, cool, calm, you know, collected self. He talked around the subject for a while and then just turned around and said, “Pete, I really don’t know how to tell you this, but the boys want you out and it’s already been arranged” — and he stressed that word, already — “that Ringo will join the band on Saturday.” And of course that was the bombshell. There had been no real forewarning at all about it and when, you know, you’d call into the office and you’ve already been down to EMI and got the recording contract ... We were gonna go back in a couple of weeks to put the finishing touches to the, you know, the bass track on “Love Me Do.” We were supposed to be going back to finish it off, and then you’re told completely out of the blue that you’re no longer a Beatle and your services are no longer required.

Q: I can only imagine. You’d have to be angry, shocked, disappointed.

I think, to be quite honest, when it actually happened, it took quite a few hours [to sink in]. Yes, there was the bombshell. It happened, it left you dumbstruck, you know? I asked myself, “Is this real, is this something that’s happening? Is it a nightmare? Am I going to wake up?” You go through all of these things. And it takes a while, really, for the penny to drop. It suddenly dawns on you like, “hang on a minute, I am out.” You know, you’re no longer a Beatle. Once that penny drops you do become angry, you know, but a lot of people over the years turned bitter, but [not me]. I think bitter is too strong a pill. That means you’re very vitriolic, and you hate them and all the other bits and pieces. There was anger because of the way it had been handled and that was all. It could have been handled better.

But as a result of all that, there was financial embarrassment because the wages of being on with the Beatles [dropped] when I joined Lee Curtis and the All Stars. There was a big salary drop. It was like starting all over again. So there was all those things going through your mind. It was very much a case of one day you were the number-one drummer with the number-one band in Liverpool — things are going absolutely, incredibly well for you and then one day, within a couple of hours of going in and seeing Brian Epstein, you’re no longer with the number-one band, you no longer got a recording contract and even though you got lots and lots of offers coming in from other bands, you have to face that decision and make that decision and start off again. And I think that was the predicament you were faced with. But fortunately I’m from a strong family and I’ve got thick skin and a strong backbone and it was a case of muscling on and proving to people that things weren’t as gloomy as other people thought they were.

Q: I’ve read that you tried to commit suicide a few years later. Was that in any way related?

No. I mean this is something, again people turn around and say “Oh, you know, The Beatles were in their heyday and things must have been going, you know, bad for you.” And I’d always turn around and said, “It was something which I’ve often asked myself, even though I don’t think about it anymore because I vowed after it that nothing like that would ever happen again. And it never has and it never will. But it was something which, I don’t know, on the spur of the night, you know, the cool, calmness of the evening ... you get a stupid bloody idea in your head. And, you know, for some odd reason you want to do it. But fortunately, my younger brother Rory was there and my mother Mona was there, and they saved me. They gave me a good talking to. They turned ‘round and said, “Look, Pete, what the hell’s going on ... you’re married, you have a lovely young daughter, you’ve got your life to live. Life’s gonna be good.” And when someone says things like that to you, you suddenly realize what a bloody idiot you’ve been. And I made a vow then that it would never happen again, and thank God it never will.

Q: Do you have any advice for musicians these days who want to avoid getting kicked out of a band?

I think staying in a band is very much not just about yourself. It’s a working relationship you have with other people. That means, not talking from personal experience ... What I wouldn’t like to do is let people use me as an example, because I just happened to be a drummer with the band that went on to the biggest thing in the music industry.

The solid advice, is that, yes, you work well on stage, you appreciate one another’s input. It’s not just yourself that’s in the band, whether it’s a two-piece or a three-piece or a 25-piece. You’re part of a particular group and that group’s got to work well together onstage and offstage as well. There’s got to be good chemistry, and if you’ve got good chemistry, you’ve got a good band. And for Christ’s sake hang onto it, because the breaks will come. It takes a lot of hard work, but they’ll come.

Q: Do you think it’s possible for a band these days to get as big as The Beatles were?

I think it’s one of those things that, if you had said 40 years ago, “would there be a band which would knock Elvis Presley off the top spot,” people would have turned around and said “no” because Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. Who knows? Forty years ago nobody knew about The Beatles, so there might be something out there hovering around in the music industry. Who the hell knows? But as it stands at the present moment, I’d turn ‘round and say it doesn’t look like it. The probability is that it won’t happen, but the music business is a funny old business.

Q: Who’s your favorite Beatle?

My favorite Beatle ... Well, I was friends with all of them, because I knew them from school days ... I knew them from the Casbah [a Liverpool club owned by Best’s mother in which The Beatles got their start]. But I think, out of all of them, I think John was my favorite, simply because of the fact that from the first time I met him I liked his chemistry. I liked the way he handled himself. I liked his humor. And I think I was fortunate, being together with him in Hamburg. And of course when we came back from Hamburg, John spent a lot of time at my house and I spent a lot of time with him at Aunt Mimi’s and I suddenly realized John wasn’t this ... how could I put it ... sardonic, you know, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed person who sort of kept people at bay. That to me was a defense mechanism. That was as close as you’re gonna get to John Lennon, right? And that’s as much I’m gonna let you see the real man. But when I was in Hamburg, I was fortunate to see another side of John, which was a very tender, very loving side. I think when I saw both those entities, and you put that together, then you have the total man. That was personified many, many years afterward, you know, with the trials and tribulations he went through.

Q: Do you have a favorite Beatles song, a favorite album?

Favorite track, “I Saw Her Standing There,” simply because of the fact that it takes me back to the days of grassroots rock n’ roll. The stuff we used to belt out, the energy. And there’s a little bit of substance in there so, you know, it captivates you and gets your feet tapping. Album, without going into the Sgt. Pepper album, I think for me the White Album because, you know, even though they were leading the world, it was an early experimentation with some stuff which was going on.

Q: So do you ever see Paul and Ringo these days?

Hasn’t been for a long time. I think the last time I saw them was, my goodness me, 1962. Seen ‘em on the television, read about them in the newspapers [laughs] ... like everyone, but on a personal level, no. But the funny thing is, if you’d have asked me 15-20 [years ago] if I’d bump into Paul and Ringo, I would have said “no,” because I was in a different walk of life and I was doing a different job. But now, you know, the music industry has a funny way of throwing people together again and I think there’s a possible 50-50 chance that we will meet again someday. But I’d look forward to it. Before we all leave the planet it would be nice to meet up with one another again and just talk about it and have a laugh about the old days.

Q: One last question: If you and Ringo were to get in a fistfight who would win?

I’d leave that up to your decision [laughs].

      Will Stewart

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