On 1 January 1962, before they reached international stardom, the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records at Decca Studios in West Hampstead, north London. In what is considered one of the biggest mistakes in music industry history, Decca rejected the band, selecting instead Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.After being available only on “bootleg” recordings, some of the songs recorded for the audition were officially released on the Beatles rarities compilation Anthology 1 in 1995.
Manager Brian Epstein made numerous trips to London to visit record companies with the hope of securing a record contract but was rejected by many, including Columbia, HMV, Pye, Philips, and Oriole. Neil Aspinall drove the Beatles down to London on New Year’s Eve, in 1961, for a Decca audition but lost his way, and the trip took ten hours. They arrived at 10 o’clock at night, and John Lennon said they arrived “just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain”.
On Monday 1 January 1962 at 11:00am, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Pete Best were auditioned by Decca staff and performed a total of fifteen songs in just under one hour. Epstein and the Beatles decided on a selection of songs the Beatles had performed in various clubs over the years, along with three Lennon–McCartney originals.
The songs played at the audition were recorded. The Beatles subsequently came to believe that Epstein had paid Decca to tape the audition.
Although it has sometimes been asserted, most notably by John Lennon, that Decca producer Tony Meehan (ex-drummer of the Shadows) produced the Decca audition session, current scholarship considers this unlikely.
The order of the songs at the session was:
“Like Dreamers Do” (John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
“Money (That’s What I Want)” (Gordy/Bradford) (unreleased version)
“Till There Was You” (Meredith Willson) (unreleased version)
“The Sheik of Araby” (Smith/Wheeler/Snyder)
“To Know Her Is to Love Her” (Phil Spector) (unreleased version)
“Take Good Care of My Baby” (King/Goffin) (unreleased)
“Memphis, Tennessee” (Chuck Berry) (unreleased version)
“Sure to Fall (In Love with You)” (Cantrell/Claunch/Perkins) (unreleased version)
“Hello Little Girl” (Lennon/McCartney)
“Three Cool Cats” (Leiber/Stoller)
“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly) (unreleased version)
“Love of the Loved” (Lennon/McCartney) (unreleased)
“September in the Rain” (Warren/Dubin) (unreleased)
“Bésame Mucho” (Consuelo Velázquez) (unreleased version)
Mike Smith agreed to let them record, telling them he could not see any problems and he would let the group know of his decisions in a few weeks.
Eventually, Decca Records rejected the Beatles, saying “guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business,”although it has since been suggested that their work that day did not yet reflect their true potential, and the “guitar” comment may have been intended as a polite let down. Decca instead chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, who auditioned the same day as the Beatles, as they were local and would require lower travel expenses.
While Epstein was negotiating with Decca, he also approached EMI marketing executive Ron White. White (who was not himself a record producer) in turn contacted EMI producers Norrie Paramor, Walter Ridley, and Norman Newell, all of whom declined to record the Beatles. Months later, the Beatles went on to sign with EMI subsidiary Parlophone, after their “comedy album” producer George Martin heard the Decca demos and decided to meet the band.
Many have speculated about who made the decision to reject the Beatles. While various accounts of the audition have been published, most agree it was Dick Rowe, producer Mike Smith or ex-Shadow Tony Meehan.
In the 1980s, Mark Lewisohn published the book Recording Sessions and, following the author’s invitation from EMI to trawl through the vaults and catalogue all the Beatles’ outtakes, another book updated it about six years later. In 2000, both of these were combined into The Complete Beatles Chronicle, which contains information about the audition:
Lewisohn had visited EMI and not Decca, but he began his account with an entry for 1 January 1962:
Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, London
“…first formal audition for a British record company, in a studio 2 miles from EMI, the Beatles nervously taped 15 songs chosen by Brian Epstein to show off every facet of their talent…each song done live on 2 track mono tape…A&R assistant Mike Smith had been sent by Dick Rowe to see the Beatles 19 days earlier in Liverpool…the Beatles completed the session in an hour…Smith promised to call Epstein.”
Underneath this entry is shown an acetate of a 45, not for the entire session but for a single of “Like Dreamers Do” (supposedly Decca cut a number of acetates from the audition before they said no).The Liverpool music paper Mersey Beat was the first to report on the Mike Smith visit by writing that the producer had made a tape of the performance (this amounted to the first “test”) and wrote “… certain Decca would put the Beatles to good use”. The Rolling Stones benefited from the Beatles’ Decca rejection. Soon after the Beatles became popular in England, Dick Rowe appeared on Juke Box Jury alongside George Harrison, who reportedly raved to him about his new favourite, an unsigned band.
The Beatles Anthology documentary (1995) includes snippets from many of the songs performed at the Decca audition, while the accompanying soundtrack, The Beatles Anthology 1, includes five of those songs (“Searchin'”, “Like Dreamers Do”, “Hello Little Girl”, “Three Cool Cats”, and “The Sheik of Araby”) along with many other outtakes and various live performances.
Sale of audition tape
The original safety master tape the group recorded at Decca’s London studios was sold by auctioneers the Fame Bureau in December 2012 to a Japanese collector for £35,000. A spokesman for the auctioneers said at the time “The tape went to a Capitol Records executive after the Beatles signed with EMI. He sold it to the current owner who was one of the top buyers for Hard Rock Cafe but it was for his own personal collection.” The authenticity of the tape sold remains debatable among experts, however, as the tape of the audition contains 15 songs. The tape auctioned has only 10 songs and is on Ampex tape which was not in use in 1962. It has not been firmly ascertained if the original master tape recorded by Decca on 1st January 1962 is in the possession of the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd. A copy of the tape used by bootleggers for the past forty years is known to be in the hands of a private collector.