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Fab five-o
Fifty years ago, on New Year's Day, the Beatles made their first recordings
The tidied-up Beatles in '62: Pete, left, George, Paul and John

Rock ‘n’ roll anniversaries are like weeds in a garden – every time you look around, another has sprung up. Still, as anniversaries go, this one is important

On New Year’s Day it will have been 50 years since the Beatles’ first significant recording session. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Pete Best had backed pop singer Tony Sheridan in 1961, in a quick German studio date overseen by easy–listening orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert.

Then, they’d played a rockin’ arrangement of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and a few others, and Kaempfert had allowed the tapes to roll while Lennon sang “Ain’t She Sweet,” and the four Beatles banged out an undistinguished Lennon/Harrison instrumental that aped the Shadows, England’s most popular guitar group at the time.

On Dec. 31, 1961, the four young musicians traveled from Liverpool to London to “audition” for Decca Records, the biggest label in Great Britain.

It was there, on New Year’s Day, they cut 15 songs in a little less than an hour, with A&R man Mike Smith manning the two–track mono console.

The audition had been secured by Brian Epstein, the Liverpool shopowner who’d fallen in love with the Beatles and convinced them to let him act as their manager.

Epstein told the Beatles he was going to make them bigger than Elvis. He’d tidied up their raw and undisciplined stage show, put them in smart suits and started booking them in ballrooms and theaters – a big step up from their origins in seedy, sweaty nightclubs.

Still, a record deal was the best way (and really, the only way) to get his boys out of Northern England and onto the world stage. And so Epstein – who could write a pretty impressive business letter – began to court the labels, all of which were based in London.

Epstein’s enthusiasm was enough to convince Mike Smith to take the train up to Liverpool to see what all the fuss was about. The A&R man did so in early December, was impressed, and offered Epstein and the band some studio time on New Year’s Day (it’s been suggested, over the years, that Epstein actually paid Smith for this “invitation”).

Lennon and McCartney had already crafted a catalog of original songs, and often squeezed one or two into each night’s live set between the rock, rhythm ‘n’ blues and comedy numbers.

Epstein, however, wasn’t about to take any chances, and he personally picked the 15 songs they were to lay down in the Decca session. Of these, only three (“Hello Little Girl,” “Like Dreamers Do” and “Love of the Loved”) were from the Lennon/McCartney songbook. The final list was a veritable sampler of what, in Epstein’s view, were the Beatles’ talents.

Epstein clearly was trying to push McCartney as the “lead singer.” During the 11 a.m. audition, he performed the Broadway ballad “Till There Was You,” the cha–cha oddity “Besame Mucho,” the Hollywood standard “September in the Rain” and the Coasters’ “Searchin,’” along with “Like Dreamers Do” and “Love of the Loved.”

Lennon took the vocal on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” “Hello Little Girl” and Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”

Harrison was given the novelty songs: “The Sheik of Araby” from 1926, and the Coasters’ bopping “Three Cool Cats” (with Lennon and McCartney turning it into a sort of rock ‘n’ roll Three Stooges routine).

The others were vocal–harmony favorites, all drawn from the band’s stage show: Buddy Holly’s “Crying Waiting Hoping,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby” and Carl Perkins’ twangy “Sure to Fall.”

The Decca tape, all these years later, is a fascinating listen. Here are the embryonic Beatles – three–part harmonies showing flashes of the brilliance that was to soon emerge, and the hard–rocking, precise guitar and bass work. The voices that would, soon enough, become familiar, ubiquitous, beloved.

They’re in their early 20s, enthusiastic and clearly nervous at being in a big, important London studio, with a man behind the proverbial glass.

But the magic is already beginning to swirl.

Ultimately, Decca signed Brian Poole & the Tremeloes instead, but Epstein was shrewd enough to request a tape of the audition, which he used to introduce the Beatles to the other labels.

In late spring, it was this recording that caught the ear of George Martin, a producer at Parlophone Records, a tiny and unprofitable subsidiary of England’s music giant EMI.

Martin had the Beatles come back to London in June to cut a few sides with him. One of the songs was Lennon/McCartney’s “Love Me Do.”

And what of Pete Best? After their audition with Martin, the mighty producer pulled Epstein aside and told him he could do what he liked as far as live performances, but in the studio, a professional session drummer would be used.

Martin had discovered the Beatles’ weak link.

As it turned out, the future Fab Three were already disenchanted with Best, both personally and musically, and Martin’s rejection was all it took for them to insist Best get the sack in favor of their Liverpool pal Ringo Starr.

Of course, they made Epstein do the dirty work, and they never spoke to Pete Best again.

The Decca tape surfaced in the mid 1970s – no one really knows how – and began to circulate on the bootleg record market.

Apple, the company jointly owned by the surviving Beatles and the others' estates, bought the masters and issued, in 1995, five of the songs on The Beatles Anthology 1: “Searchin,’” “Like Dreamers Do,” “Hello Little Girl,” “Three Cool Cats” and “The Sheik of Araby.”

The entire 15–song collection is available on CD, if not officially, if you know where to look (hint: poke around online). From an historical perspective, it’s invaluable, if not necessarily legal.

Not that we’re not endorsing the bootleg market. But until Apple sees fit to put out all 15 songs, this is the only way to hear them.

A postscript: In 1963, after the Beatles had become kings of Britain (and shortly before they would conquer the world), Harrison was a panelist on the BBC–TV teen program Juke Box Jury. Mike Smith, the hapless A&R man from Decca, was also on the panel.

During a break, Harrison – after good–naturedly ribbing Smith about turning down the Beatles – enthusiastically told the talent scout about his new favorite group, an R&B quintet then gigging around the Richmond neighborhood of London. He suggested Smith go and check them out.

The group was the Rolling Stones.