On New Year’s Day 1962, the fledgling Beatles performed 15 songs in one hour at the Decca Records studio in North London. They hoped for a recording contract. Instead, they were advised by Decca’s A&R bigwigs that ‘guitar groups were on the way out’ and were rejected in favor of a local band whose travel expenses would be lower. Just 18 months later, the decision was already being cited as one of the biggest mistakes in musical history – and by any financial yardstick it’s been getting bigger ever since.
And yet… even if you’re besotted by The Beatles, the Decca audition tape isn’t very good. Only hindsight enables you to identify what would develop into signature musical features. Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s selection of songs reveals his own, muddled, musical taste; and though they are played with the fluency acquired doing three, finger-splintering sets a night in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, the songs cover too broad a stylistic range to establish a strong identity. Even so, Decca’s lack of enthusiasm was typical of Londoners’ attitudes to ‘north of Watford’. If they’d been listening, they’d have picked up the new buzz from the Liverpool area.
From Epstein’s and The Beatles’ point of view, the Decca rejection turned out to be a blessing. It meant the unwanted tape could be played to an EMI subsidiary producer, who spotted the originality of the feisty personalities behind it. And the whole world knows about the symbiotic relationship of The Beatles and their producer George Martin.
It was a disaster for Decca – but even they derived ultimate triumph from The Beatles success. By 1963, already stratospheric, George Harrison felt sorry for Dick Rowe, head of Decca’s A&R. So George gave Dick a hot tip to go and see a new band – and Decca signed the Rolling Stones.
When: January 1 1962
Where: Decca Studios, Maida Vale, London, UK
Toll: Decca’s blooper made life much easier for new bands in the next decade. Big record companies were terrified of making a similar mistake, and for the only time in popular music history, were prepared at least to listen to anyone with something remotely new in sound or song.
You should know: Decca was not the only label to reject The Beatles. Brian Epstein approached numerous companies in his mission to get a recording contract, among them Philips, Pye and Columbia.