Of the numerous musicians credited with being "the Fifth Beatle" down the years, one of the principal contenders is generally accepted to be drummer Pete Best. Except Pete wasn't the fifth Beatle at all; if anything, he was one of the original Fab Four, the first big attraction the group had and the man who did most to establish their popularity during the early part of their career.
Pete Best's mother Mona ran a club in the West Derby district of Liverpool called The Casbah (Pete himself had been born in India, where his mother had formerly been a nurse). John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ken Brown were the first band to establish a residency there as The Quarry Men during August 1959. A few weeks later Brown was sacked after a disagreement, the band walked out on the gig and Pete Best and Ken Brown together formed a new outfit called the Blackjacks who took up the vacant residency at the Casbah.
The remaining Quarry Men meanwhile changed their name to The Silver Beetles and hooked up with Stuart Sutcliffe and, for two months, drummer Tommy Moore. When Moore left, McCartney poached Best from the Blackjacks and, as The Beatles, the five of them left for Hamburg in August 1960 where they established themselves at the Indra Club (later the Kaiserkeller). Upon their return to Liverpool the following December, sans Sutcliffe, it was Best who (along with his mother) took on the role of manager, first booking the Beatles into the Cavern Club and then back to Hamburg; and it was Best who for a while became the star attraction - his popularity growing to such an extent that when they played a Valentines Day dance the following February, the unprecedented step of placing the drummer at the front of the stage was experimented with (the experiment failed; the stage was invaded by girls and Best mobbed).
Whether it was his legendary moodiness or simply jealousy through the increasing attention Pete Best was receiving that led to him being unexpectedly sacked from the Beatles has never been satisfactorily explained. Certainly the quality of his drumming hadn't been brought into question - even Rory Storm & The Hurricanes' drummer, one Ringo Starr, had copied the solid beat style with heavy use of the bass drum which Pete Best brought back with him from Germany. George Martin's use of a session drummer at the Beatles first recording session was simply standard studio practice and no reflection on Pete Best's ability - the same thing happened to Ringo the following September when the Beatles recorded their debut, 'P.S. I Love You'. It seems likely therefore that when a reluctant Brian Epstein called Pete Best into his office at NEMS at 11:30 on Thursday 16th August 1962 to inform him he'd been sacked, he was merely acting on the instructions of John, Paul and George. The latter two are probably the only people left alive today who know the truth behind the reason for the sacking.
The Terrascope's Mick Donovan chatted to Pete recently about his time within and without the Beatles. What follows is one of the most revealing and in-depth interviews with a former member of The Beatles ever published, even allowing for the recent hype surrounding the Anthology. Remember where you read it first.
Looking back on it all now, how do you feel about your time with The Beatles?
Oh, it's dim and distant now to be honest. As you say, it's thirty three years ago - a complete lifespan! You have to adjust to it, and I adjusted to it many, many years ago. You have to get it out of your system, otherwise it's... "God Almighty!" and you end up all bitter and twisted and that's not my outlook on life. It's very much a case of yes, it happened, that's fine, you've carved your little niche in history as regards you spent some two years in The Beatles regardless of what the outcome was, but - life goes on. It's not what happened yesterday that's important but it's what's happening today and tomorrow. And that's my entire outlook on life. You’d go round the bend thinking about it, as I'm certain some people would have, but life goes on apart from that and there's other things which have compensated for it greatly. You know, I've got a great family, great wife, great friends, I can go out and socialise without any fear of being mobbed... it's great!
But you don't mind occasionally being mobbed at your concerts?
No! But, you know, it's great to be able to go quaff a couple of pints and enjoy meself.
With all the recent TV interest and the release of the Beatles 'Anthology', you must have made a bit of money at last?
There's been a lot of speculation about that. Yes OK, a deal has been set which entitles me to royalties. That was just ironed out before the anthology was released, that had to be done basically, but there's so much speculation at the present moment revolving around the amounts which I should or shouldn't be entitled to I tend to sit back and wonder, "My God, where did they get those sort of figures from?". There will be a royalty payment, yeah. But whatever happens it's going to put a smile on my face.
Had you ever earned out of the Beatles before?
No. Not really, this'll be the first time there's been any renumeration at all for services rendered or whatever you'd call it. That makes me feel good, but also it's good to know that after so many years they’ve at least given you a bit of recognition for what you did, and I think that counts for an awful lot as well. It's a little bit of recognition, which has never really happened before.
That seems strange to me, considering that you really were a very integral part of it all at one time.
Well, I think it's one of those things. Everyone has their own life to lead and has different priorities and things just go on and on, no-one kicks up an awful lot of fuss about it. It's over and done with.
You're working on another book I believe?
Yeah, at the present moment we're working on it, sort of constructing it, and although a final release date hasn't been decided on we're looking at the theme of it and that's exciting as well, y'know. It's another aspect of my career and my life, which is great. I don't want to let too much out of the bag at the moment, obviously. It’s bound to be concerning The Beatles.
What's the most common question that you get asked about your time with The Beatles?
"Why did you leave The Beatles?" They always expect a definitive answer and I dunno, maybe one day there might be one, but right at the moment it doesn't particularly worry me. People seem to think though that if they get an answer straight from the horse's mouth it might just solve the jigsaw puzzle or the mystery which surrounds it.
I'll ask the same question then!
It's largely true what I've always turned round and said, you know; it's always been a case that I was called into the office, there was no fore-warning at all about the subject. We played the Cavern the night before, and Brian asked me to come into the office. That was nothing different really because I'd handled the business before Brian had become manager as regards bookings and stuff. So it was like another little business meeting, chatting things over. So I bounded into the office the next morning, and when I actually got there it wasn’t the same Brian. He seemed a little bit apprehensive, a little bit edgy, y'know, and we talked around the subject for a while until I suppose he couldn't contain himself any longer and he said, "I've got bad news for you. The boys want you out and it's already been arranged that Ringo will be going with the band on Saturday." And that was how the bombshell was dropped, around about half past ten, eleven o'clock that morning. There was no forewarning. We'd already been down to EMI to put some of the tracks down with George Martin, and the producer had listened to what we'd hoped to record, and from that session in June we'd planned to go back and put the finishing touches to it. Of course in between that I got the big boot.
What was your reaction?
One of shock and horror to be quite honest. Because everything was moving along for the band at that time, things were getting stronger and stronger, our goals were being achieved and we had a recording contract with a major label. There was a lot of heartache and frustration afterwards, you know, there was bound to be but as I said earlier you can't keep looking back at that, you've got to persevere and make the most of what you can do with your life.
When you actually saw them again, what was that like?
Well, we played on the same bill as the Beatles on two occasions and it was a case of like a bit of a stand-off I suppose, y'know: I'm not going to approach them and they're not going to approach me and say sorry for what we did, so it was a bit like everyone was waiting for someone to take the first step, which never happened. And it just goes on. And of course very shortly after that they were a phenomena, which put them onto a totally different plane and even if I did want to get in touch with them it would have been very, very difficult anyway because we were in two different realms of show business. I was still involved in touring and they'd become a world phenomena.
So from what you're saying, it sounds as if basically they took the coward's way out of sacking you.
Well, the fact that they never had the decency to get in touch with me about the dismissal or give me a chance to defend myself... I mean they openly admit it now, that basically they just said to Brian Epstein "You're the manager, you do it mate".
What did you think of the 'Beatles Anthology' TV series?
I think it was pretty much what I expected, it was the story of the three Beatles, or very much their story as Apple perceives it. Because I think basically they reached the point where so many other people had turned round and told their story that the Beatles said well hold on a minute, let's put our side of it. And that's basically what they did.
Pete Best didn't get much of a mention?
I didn't expect it to be quite honest, because well OK there's different ways of telling the story but if you look at it there's an awful lot of other people who are omitted in that particular anthology but like I say, that's how they see the story and it's their story, so...
Let's talk about the Casbah, because that really was about the beginning?
Yeah, very much so. If the Casbah had never opened they'd never have played there as The Quarry Men [in 1959], would the Beatles have ever evolved if I’d never joined? It's the big "if syndrome", y'know. If Ken Brown and George Harrison hadn't come down to see Mona [Pete Best's mother, who ran the Casbah] because the Les Stuart Quartet, who were supposed to open up, had broken up, Paul and John mightn't have come down and they mightn't have reformed as The Quarry Men - there's a lot of if's and but's, but that's all part of the weird and wonderful story, and it's a story which unfortunately a lot of people really don't know. And they need to know because they were very important days. Basically, the Casbah had its own atmosphere. They were enjoyable days, it was a family coffee bar which was run by the family but it very soon became a showcase for all the Merseyside talent and it was great. It’s been said that in her own way, Mona was the Mother of Mersey Beat. That captures everything, puts it in a nutshell. Mona was just so interested in giving everyone a chance, not only bands like the Beatles and the Remo 4 - you could go on and on and on - but she was also interested in the young audition bands as well, she wanted to give those kids a chance of breaking through.
It's amazing really considering the generation gap, I mean she was a parent herself -
Yeah, but she was a young person and she enjoyed the music herself. She stayed a very young person until she died, tragically and suddenly in 1988.
What are your particular memories of John Lennon?
There were two sides to John. There was the public side, the wacky and sometimes caustic witted, very abrasive and very humorous front man, but I was fortunate in seeing another side of John which the public didn't see, and that was him as a very tender and loving fellow, one which revolved around his girlfriend - which was Cynthia at that time - and a family man. And that was a side which came out in quiet moments, when you were quaffing a pint in Germany, say.
It seems that it was you and John who became the closest of the band members?
We did. We spent a lot of time together out in Germany and then when we were back home in Liverpool it was very much a case of we'd finish a gig and be dropped off back at the Casbah and he’d say he was staying the night there if he wasn't meeting his girlfriend, and we'd go down and raid the fridge and fill ourselves up with Cola and crisps or whatever else we could lay our hands on and come back in the front room and play records until about three or four o'clock in the morning. So yeah, there was that intimacy and friendship there.
Sum up John for us. He was the bold one?
You'd never bet John to do anything. There was always that side to him - we'd bet him to do something outrageous and he'd say "yeah, OK". We used to have a lot of fun. Like when we bet him to stand outside the Bambi Kino in the middle of winter. He had a pair of long-johns on, because it was bloody cold, it was about two in the morning and people were still milling around. Out of the blue we said, "Bet you wouldn't stand out there in your long johns, John", and lo and behold, John sticks a newspaper under his arm, puts on some sunglasses and out he goes. Stood in the middle of the street reading this newspaper with the sunglasses on and a pair of cowboy boots.
There's an infamous story about a mugging in Hamburg at one point...
Yeah, what tends to be forgotten because of the wealth of the Beatles at the present moment is that during that first trip out to Hamburg I think we got paid something like 12 or 15 pounds a week, which ain't an awful lot. Out of that we had to live, we had to eat and drink and everything else... to tell the truth, most of it went on booze, but that's another story! But we were young kids and we enjoyed ourselves, and you'd get to the situation where you'd end up without any damned money in your pocket and you'd do these crazy things. There was a guy one night buying us drinks and he had a wallet which was like loaded up with Deutchmarks, you know, and we got this crazy idea into our heads that we'd roll him for his wallet and do a runner. So John and I turned round and told George and Paul what we were going to do and of course they were like "yeah, okay, we'll keep our eyes open for you" - but as we were walking towards the station with him, looking for a good place to do the deed, George and Paul decided they'd had enough and headed back to the Bambi Kino, which left John and meself. We sort of picked our moment, gave him a thump and rugby-tackled him to the ground, but he was a strong bugger. We managed to get our hands on the wallet, but lo and behold he pulled out what he thought was a bloody gun, and as soon as we saw this we'd had enough - we dropped the wallet and broke the world record over a hundred yards, we ran it in about 5 second flat! We reached the Bambi Kino where George and Paul were waiting for us. They asked us where the wallet was and when we told them we all just went into raptures laughing so much, wondering why the hell we ever tried to do that. The thing was, we were petrified - we thought this guy knows where we are and who we are and he's gonna come back for us and bring his mates and we're gonna get the shit kicked out of us. Fortunately though we never saw him again. Touch wood.
We've spoken about John - what about the other guys?
Paul was very much P.R. oriented. I mean there's no denying the fact that they were all great musicians, obviously the talent was there, but Paul was very much the front man. I wouldn't say he was the centre of attraction, but he was the one who wanted to make sure everyone knew what was going on. He and John would sort of bounce off one another, if John did something then Paul would be the first to try not to be out-done by him. Which worked for the band. Again though, even at that early stage the musical talent was showing through.
How did you get on with Paul?
Fine. In those days it was very much a case that everyone got on with one another. I was closest to John but that didn't necessarily mean I wasn't close to Paul. If you look at it, we were thrown together to go to Germany. We're on foreign soil so we've got to hang out together. The bond and the relationship had to develop otherwise it would have broken up even at that early stage.
It was Paul who rang you to join the band?
Yeah, it was Paul who made the 'phone call and said, "We've got the offer to go to Germany, how do you feel about joining the band, and if you are interested then come down and audition."
Part of the legend is that they were particularly interested in your drum kit?
That tends to be the legacy of the legend, people saying "It wasn't so much the drummer, it was the drums". It wasn't like that. They were aware of the fact that I was playing drums, and yes I had a drum kit but I think about 90% of the drummers in Liverpool had a kit of some shape. You couldn't just play with a snare drum and cymbal. They'd seen me play, they knew what I could do and it seemed natural to make the approach.
You haven't still got that old drum kit, have you?
I have still got it. I don't use it, but I've still got it for sentimental reasons. Sounds like a song that, doesn't it?
George Harrison is a very private person now, what was he like then?
He was very young. We called him the baby of the group, because that's basically what he was. He wasn't a loner, he'd join in and contribute to what everyone else was doing but he wasn't a ring-leader. His forte was that he was so much into his music. Even at that stage, like going out and changing from a Futurama to a Gretsch, which was like "wow". He was very much into improving his musical equipment, his amps and his musical technique. And I think that stayed with him for many, many years. You could see that progression, even in his music. Sitar, twelve-string, everything. He became very accomplished.
George’s image now is one of a very private, religious, vegetarian type of person. But back then on the Reeperbahn he was amid a scene of sex, prostitutes and everything else and I assume you all availed yourselves of the, uh, facilities? Or did you keep yourselves to yourselves?
Are you joking?! You put yourself in the same position, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen year olds in Hamburg with that much totty available? We availed ourselves of every damn thing we could get our hands on!
You were living in the back of a cinema, the Bambi Kino, on that first trip. Was it a flea pit?
Well, it wasn't a five star cinema! We called the two bunkers that Paul and I stayed in The Black Hole of Calcutta - there wasn't a damned light in there, or anything like that. We had to use a candle or a torch to find our clothes. We were in the back of the corridor that led to the men's toilet - we used to wash in the toilet. The really palatial suite was halfway down the corridor. That had an electric light in it.
You played eight hours a night, did you use speed or something to keep you going?
It was available... nothing heavy. If we needed it we took it, but it wasn't like we lived on it, like a lot of people seem to think. We did it on seldom occasions.
You performed on the first Beatles session, but then George Martin said he wanted to get his own drummer in?
What actually happened was this. We went down on the 6th of June. After I'd been kicked out, there was another session which took place with Ringo. That second session, George Martin turned round and said "Right, where’s Pete?” and they basically said, “Pete’s left, here’s the new drummer”, which was Ringo. George Martin listened to Ringo and was still not happy, so the following week Andy White was brought in. So you’ve got the situation where he’s expecting me to go back. I’m not there, and he was told Ringo was the new drummer. OK? He listens to Ringo and it was only after that particular session that he decides to use Andy White. So I’ll let people make their own minds up about that one.
What did you record at that first session?
We did ‘Love Me Do’, ‘PS I Love You’ and ‘Besame Mucho’. ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘PS I Love You’ were the two we really wanted to get recorded. They were the ones we were trying to make an impression with.
What did George Martin think of your drumming then?
It was just a case of “Yeah, we’ll arrange a date to come back”. He said at the time he might use a session drummer, but that was quite normal then.
Why did the band want Ringo in?
I don't know.
That you were too handsome was one reason given for your exit from The Beatles - is that just tittle tattle, or there a grain of truth in it?
I don’t involve myself with that one. If that was the reason then it was silly - it doesn't hold water, really. Other people have said the band was becoming Pete Best & The Beatles even though I wasn’t aware of it. If people want to think that then let them think it. They can make their own decision. I'm not going to influence them. Never have done.
Did you know Ringo? He was with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes...
Yeah, I got to know Ringo from the Casbah. Of course, they were in Germany too on the first trip out there so when we came back to Liverpool, drummers, like drummers do, team up with drummers.
How do you feel about the fact that he took your place?
As far as I’m concerned, if it hadn't have been him it’d have been someone else. It’s just one of those things. I always look at it like, if someone offers you the Number 1 job with the Number 1 band and there's all this stuff that’s in the pipeline, you'd be a bloody fool not to accept it, wouldn’t you?
What do you remember of Stu Sutcliffe?
Stu was not, as people turn round and say, a bad bass player. I’ve read so many people putting him down for his bass playing. I’d like to set that one straight. He knew what his limits were regarding being a bass player. He wasn’t a prolific musician but what he did was accept that and he gave 200%. His bass playing was a lot better than people gave him credit for. But as we all know, his first love was art. I had the benefit of seeing Stu drawing when we were in the Kaiserkeller. He’d take his pad out, see someone in the audience and just sketch them. Brilliant.
What did you think of the film ‘Backbeat’?
The way it was promoted wasn’t right. They said it was the five lads from Hamburg, but as people recognise now it was actually the love story of Astrid and Stu and the rest of us just happened to be involved because we were there at the time. It was good entertainment. I was very impressed with the soundtrack more than anything else. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to capture that raw, powerful energy which is what it was in those days.
Obviously a long time has passed, but you've taken your time telling your story. Nobody could ever accuse you of cashing in.
It’s been a case of I will tell my story if and when I have to. People have often approached me and asked me to tell my story, but I’ve always said if and when I ever tell my story it'll be along with the other three. It's been so many years, and although I'm not a reader of everything written about the Beatles I've seen a fair amount and there was a particular period of time which wasn't getting covered and that's the Hamburg days. And there's such a fascinating story to be told. It looked as though the story was never going to be told unless I did it, and that was one of the reasons that I wrote the book. To let people become aware of what actually transpired in Hamburg. The hard days, the good days, the humour, the tragedy.
Have you got a favourite Beatles song?
My favourite has to be 'I Saw Her Standing There'. It reminds me of what the Beatles were. It's a kicking number, it still has a lot of impact. People tend to forget that they were a pretty powerful rock 'n' roll outfit before they started leading the world, being different from everybody else.
What do you think now about The Beatles phenomena?
People have said about the phenomena, "give them ten to fifteen years and it'll all be done and dusted" - and it isn't. If anything, the Anthology created a second wave of total Beatlemania, which is great for them and great for everyone else concerned. The thing is, thirty odd years afterwards they can still create this enormous attention and still kids are being born who are infatuated by the music. That's the incredible thing about it.
What are you up to currently?
The Pete Best Band is currently doing a 'Back To The Beat' tour. There's a CD out in conjunction with it and a another one in the pipeline which will involve original material. At live performances we do classic rock standards from the '50s through to the '90s, the Beatles through to the Blues Brothers, James Brown through to whoever else. I don't want people getting the impression that we're a Beatles copy band, because we are far from that. The repertoire involves Beatles numbers on which I played and Beatles classics, but we're doing it in a Nineties fashion and it's that that's captivating the audiences. It's very energetic - there's six of us in the band altogether, two drummers, myself and Roag, Andy Cawley who's a great front-line singer, Paul Davies on keyboards and a really good lead guitarist, Vince Hagan. And last but not least our bass player, Andy Kirke. We've been together for three or four years and it's reached the stage where the demand is really coming in. It's great.
And is this your main work now?
It's the day job, the night job and the 24 hour job!
People might look upon your book, your band etcetera as cashing in somewhat?
Yeah, there is that side to it, people will assume I'm cashing in. But as far as I'm concerned it wasn't that. If someone else tells the story that's fine, but there wasn't anyone else.
Pete Best was interviewed by Mick Donovan. Transcription and production: Phil McMullen.
© Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1996.