Imagine: The Shocking Story of How The Beatles Were Rejected Twice By The Same Man
In 1962, Decca Records executive Dick Rowe reportedly passed up on an opportunity to sign The Beatles to his label…two times! But is that the real story?
It sounds like a crazy barroom story. “Did you hear the one about the record label guy who turned down a chance to sign The Beatles? Not once, but TWICE?!”
We’re talking about British music exec and record producer Dick Rowe, who was the head of A&R (artists and repertoire) of the Singles division at Decca Records from the early 1950s through 1974. Though he produced many top-selling records during those years, along with signing a number of talented and popular artists,
Rowe is historically blamed for making one of the biggest blunders in rock music history: he did not sign The Beatles to Decca Records when given the opportunity in early 1962, citing that “guitar groups are on the way out.”
In 1962, The Beatles Were Looking for a Record Deal
It sounds like a tall tale—a rock’n’roll tall tale, so its validity has to be questioned from the outset—but it is one that has its basis in fact. Though the account has been enhanced and fancified over the nearly six decades since it actually happened, there’s still a lot of substance beneath the glitter.
The story begins with a record industry gent named Mike Smith, who was Rowe’s assistant in A&R at Decca and responsible for a good amount of talent scouting. In December, 1961, Smith made the jaunt from London to Liverpool to check out a newer band called The Beatles play at the popular music spot The Cavern Club.
Impressed by what he saw and heard, Smith approach The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein to arrange to bring them to London for an audition, which would consist of making an hour-long demo in the Decca studios.
At that time, Decca could only afford to sign one new group to the label and The Beatles were one of a pair scheduled to audition that pivotal day, January 1, 1962. The other band seeking a record deal was the London-based Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, a five-piece outfit scheduled to make their demo right after The Beatles.
Decca Exec Dick Rowe Could Have Signed Them!
As the story goes, although they were nervous, The Beatles were in high spirits and played with energy during their session. Brian Epstein and the group carefully chose 15 songs from their repertoire that they felt best represented their act and showcased their versatility. Using amplifiers provided by Decca as Smith had deemed The Beatles’ own equipment as “unfit,” the boys stepped up to the microphones and did what they do, which included three original songs penned by John Lennon and Paul McCartney: “Like Dreamers Do,” “Love of the Love,” and “Hello Little Girl.”
In an unsung, brilliant managerial move, Brian Epstein requested that Decca tape the demo, to which Mike Smith agreed. For his part, Epstein was comfortable enough with the performance to believe it would lead to a recording contract. The word is that Epstein even took the boys out for a celebratory dinner that night complete with wine!
Here’s where the story gets a little shaky.
According to Rowe, he put the responsibility of the signing into Smith’s hands. The two had consulted and discussed that signing a local London act (like Brian Poole & The Tremeloes) would ensure lower traveling expenses, as opposed to a Liverpool-based group (like The Beatles) that was based 220 miles away.
It Never Happened for Decca Records & The Beatles
And, again, according to Rowe, the decision would be up to Smith.
“I told Mike he would have to decide between them. It was up to him—The Beatles or Brian Poole & The Tremeloes,” said Rowe. “We decided it was better to take the local group.”
Over the years, a handful of other small details connected to that fateful decision have been uncovered, led by Epstein’s insistence that he told Smith he would personally purchase 3,000 copies of anything Decca released by The Beatles. The word is that Epstein’s promise never made it back to Rowe, who would have probably leaned more towards signing the group had he known that 3,000 records had essentially already been sold!
Not long after Decca decided to not sign The Beatles, Epstein managed to convince Rowe to come to The Cavern Club to hear the band perform live. On the night Rowe came to the club, though, the weather was horrible and he found himself stuck outside of the crowded venue as the rain poured down. Rowe didn’t feel like weathering the weather and decided to return to his hotel room and then back to London without telling anyone.
So, in a sense, Rowe rejected The Beatles not once, but twice.
It was in Brian Epstein’s 1964 autobiography A Cellar Full of Noise that Brian wrote of Rowe dismissing Brian The Beatles in a February 1962 meeting with the now infamous proclamation that, “Guitar groups are on their way out.”
But Rowe insisted until his death in 1986 that he never said that. To this day, it is not known if Epstein was simply trying to spice up an otherwise dull story for his book or if Rowe was attempting to distance himself from one of the biggest mistakes in music history.
Meanwhile, Decca did sign Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, who were, ironically, a guitar group with a similar style to The Beatles.
And as for the infamous audition session that didn’t get them signed, Paul McCartney himself admits that it didn’t showcase the band in its finest hour.
“Listening to the tapes, I can understand why we failed the Decca audition,” said McCartney. “We weren’t that good, though there were some quite original interesting things.”
The Beatles Manager Brian Epstein Made a Deal with EMI
Always the yin to his bandmate McCartney’s yang, John Lennon had a different opinion on what emerged from that hour in the studio.
“I wouldn’t have turned us down on that. I think it sounded okay,” Lennon offered. “I think Decca expected us to be all polished when we were just doing a demo. They should have seen our potential.”
But, most importantly, Brian Epstein recognized the group’s potential and took a copy of the audition tape over to EMI records, where it eventually made it into the hands of producer George Martin, who was one of the only producers at the label who had not yet refused The Beatles. Martin clearly liked what he heard…and the rest is genuine, soaring rock’n’roll history.
As for Dick Rowe, the complete, true story of his turning down The Beatles twice will probably never be known for sure, but his legacy remains intact for all the other work he did over the course of his fruitful career.
Rowe subsequently signed several other Liverpool bands and musicians to Decca, including Beryl Marsden and The Big Three, though neither made much of an impression when compared to those four other Liverpudlians that were once considered by the label.
Rowe remained one of the UK’s leading producers and record executives throughout the Sixties, signing such acts as Them featuring Van Morrison, the Moody Blues, the Animals, Cat Stevens, the Zombies, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Tom Jones, the Small Faces, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Procol Harum, among others.
Before all those breakthrough signings, though, following an introduction and some encouragement from The Beatles’ George Harrison in May, 1963, Dick Rowe signed a group known as the Rolling Stones to Decca after their audition.
And like The Beatles, you’ve probably heard of them, too.
The Beatles: Rejection and Resilience
The Beatles weren’t only rejected by Decca; the group that would go on to sell the most records worldwide was rejected by at least four respectable record companies. And yet, they never gave up.
Success comes with many aspects: talent, luck, effort, and even the fickleness of another person’s interests at any given moment. The true components of success are finding it even in failure, believing in yourself despite rejection, and realizing there is no way to please everyone all of the time.
The Beatles knew their worth and couldn’t be swayed. As John Lennon once quipped, “Well, we can’t be everything to everybody!