Unless you happened to be in Hamburg, Germany, or Liverpool, England between the years of 1960 and 1962, you would not have seen the Beatles’ original drummer, Pete Best. By the time the Beatles had captured the attention of the media and then the world, Ringo Starr had taken over the drum seat. The two years that Best spent with them, however, helped pave the way for what was to come.
Self-taught, with Gene Krupa as his primary influence, Best played in semi-professional bands until meeting up with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The Quarrymen, as they were called then, were basically a guitar group when Best saw them for the first time playing in his mother’s coffee club, the Casbah. Shortly thereafter, they asked Best to join them, now calling themselves the Silver Beatles, and they departed for Hamburg where they developed much of their sound and appeal from working seven hours a day, seven days a week for six months.
Currently in release is a three-record set called Silver Beatles: Like Dreamers Do, a collection which includes recordings from their Decca audition tapes which included Best on drums. Now 40, Best currently works for the English government, but in his soft-spoken manner, he shared the fond memories as well as the disappointments of his seven-year musical career.
RF: The first time you saw the three of them play together, what was your impression of them? What set them aside from others and made them so different or terrific?
PB: Around that time, most of the vogue was frontline singers. It was a main singer with a backing group behind him, as opposed to a group where each individual sang, which is, of course, commonplace today. Back in ’58, it was sort of people copying Elvis Presley with a band behind them, so the title of the group was always “So and So and the Blanks,” like the top groups, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes or Cass and the Casanovas. When I saw these guys perform, even though they didn’t have a drummer, the harmonies they were singing and the type of material was great. A lot of people were, at that time, playing sort of middle of the road stuff, typical Top-20 type material. These guys were knocking out stuff like Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and they were doing harmony work like the Everly Brothers. That was new in those days and it was nice to hear. Consequently, they went down very well, even though, at first, they didn’t have the reputation of those top groups in Liverpool at the time. The funny thing was that the other guys in other bands all sort of looked down on the Quarrymen. They knew what they were trying to do, but they didn’t have a big reputation.
RF: Why were they looked down upon?
PB: I suppose the others thought they were inferior. Here were these guys who didn’t have a drummer, who sort of sat there, played guitar and sang, which seemed sort of amateurish. The funny thing was, that when I joined and we sort of disappeared off to Hamburg for six months, when we came back, there was a little bit of prestige. Still that feeling among the other groups was, “So, you played Germany. We played Germany too.” But when we got up on stage, played and the kids went wild, which was basically overnight, those guys who had been the top dogs at the time suddenly found themselves embarrassed. The Beatles were the top dogs suddenly and we were the ones setting the trend.
RF: Why do you think that overnight hysteria began to occur?
PB: Playing seven hours, seven days a week got us in good shape, because we sort of got our act together there, and we developed a style that the German audience wanted to see. They wanted to listen to powerhouse music; an English band who could do a variety of things, ranging from sort of soft-harmony type music, to out and out rockers and everthing in between. Plus, we were mad on stage. We were unconventional and didn’t give two damns about what people thought about us.
RF: What do you mean by unconventional?
PB: In those days, most of the groups wore collar and tie outfits, gold lame suits, clean cut. Simply because we had to spend so much time on stage, we never had a conventional stage outfit. We used to play in jeans and T-shirts, anything we woke up in, basically. Our hair grew long; long by standards those days, although now, you’d say it wasn’t long. At that time, it was revolutionary.
RF: How much original material were you exposed to?
PB: Not a great deal. We were into sort of copying the standard material, very American influenced, and we would play that material and put our own innovations into it. The original material came out later on when the groups in Liverpool started to copy the Beatles. In view of the fact that we came back in leather jackets and jeans and cowboy boots, we started the vogue. We did what we had done in Germany on stage in Liverpool. The kids must have been ready for something like that because they went crazy. I guess it was something rebellious. We didn’t conform to anything and we didn’t do these little routines. Ours was throw it off the shoulder and if they like it, that’s all we want to do. What happened, though, was the other groups sort of turned around and said, “We gotta get on the bandwagon quick.” So virtually overnight, the stagesuits disappeared and everyone suddenly started walking around in jeans and T-shirts. Coming back to the point about original material, everyone started playing similar material also, so we said, “Okay, we are going to be a little smarter. We can write songs.” We started to slowly introduce original material and try it out on the audiences. We found the kids were liking it, so more and more original material came out.
RF: When you were in Hamburg, all the accounts sound as though you guys ate, breathed and slept together. Who were you closest to?
PB: It’s got to be John. Even before that, when I first got to know him in the Casbah, there was something that you just sort of instantly liked about the fellow. He had a lot of wit, I liked his attitude that he couldn’t give a damn and he was a down-to-earth guy. We spent all that time in Germany and when we got back, he spent a lot of time at my house, sort of messing around, and we’d go out and have a drink together and that type of stuff. I think out of the lot of them, I was closer to John than anyone else.
RF: So you returned from Germany, and you played the Cavern shortly thereafter?
PB: Rock ‘n’ roll was still a dirty word down there, but the owner was experimenting. He was doing some dinner-time sessions, which meant that he was letting rock bands play down there at dinner time. Possibly if you were good, he might let you play with a jazz band for an evening sometimes.
RF: What kind of set were you playing?
PB: A blue pearl Premier.
RF: From all the stories I’ve read about the Cavern and that amount of people, what did the heat do to your drumheads?
PB: Well, it was about this time that we started to swap over to plastic heads. Initially, the bass drum and tom-toms were still calf, but by now, we had switched the snare drum over to plastic simply because of the fact that, playing long hours, calf broke very easily and it was more economical to get a plastic head; easier to change. So as the calf skin material broke, it was the easy thing to replace it with plastic heads, but there were many times at the Cavern when I still had calf heads on, and I spent more time tuning them.
RF: You went back to Germany a month later and played the Top Ten Club. What were the hours like that you were working then?
PB: A little bit more civilized. We only played five hours during the week and six hours on the weekend and we had bigger breaks between sets.
RF: How does one physically withstand that?
PB: A lot of the time we were riding with booze. A lot of it was that we were young and excited and mentally it didn’t worry us. We were making money and we had a lot of fun out of it. It wasn’t like today’s standards where you do an hour set and you work to the bones for that hour, either. We used to pace ourselves, because, for example, the club opened at 7:00 and you’d know, mid-week, you could normally take a couple of easy sets. Around 10:00 until midnight things hustled, but then you could coast a bit. Of course, on a Saturday or Sunday night, from the minute the doors opened, the place would be steaming.
RF: This was the trip where you recorded “My Bonnie” with Tony Sheridan. Were there any contracts or such?
PB: When we backed Tony Sheridan, we were paid a set fee, which was something we weren’t worried about. It was just the fact that we could record and we didn’t really think about it. The numbers we laid down for Polydor, “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Cry for a Shadow,” again, we just got paid a set fee for that. We didn’t even know if they were going to be released, but as it so happened, once the Beatle phenomena took off, of course they were released.
RF: Your first recording experience must have been very exciting.
PB: Oh yes. The funny thing about it was that we got signed up by a big orchestra leader in Germany, and when he said he was going to take us to record, we thought a recording studio. As it turned out, we ended up playing in a school hall which he used for his orchestra. He had sound equipment and such, but it wasn’t a set studio. We got miked up and there were drapes there to keep the sound down to a minimum, so consequently, the sound is pretty raw.
RF: When you returned home, the pandemonium had already begun?
PB: By this time, we had been away from home for three months and people were waiting to see us and how we had changed, if we had changed, which we hadn’t. We just got a bit more wild. So when we came back, the kids were going wild at the Cavern, which had become our second home, so to speak.
RF: By this time, jazz had sort of been pushed to the sidelines. How did you feel as a musician, coming from a jazz kind of a genre into rock, which was the sign of the times?
PB: I liked Gene Krupa because I liked his style of drumming. He was a powerhouse as opposed to a conventional swing, big band kind of drummer. There’s a lot of stuff he used to do which you could adapt to a powerhouse kind of style, and because of that, I would imagine that a lot of my stuff is sort of Krupa oriented. I used to like slugging around a good solid beat, a lot of strong laid down material. And the funny thing is that in Trad jazz bands in Liverpool, it seemed that the drummer kind of sat in, kept a beat, did a couple of rolls here and there, but basically, he was swinging along with the band, filling in the sound, with rimshots here and there. It used to be quite funny sometimes because some of the jazz drummers would play a four-hour set and they’d come off and there wouldn’t be a bead of sweat on their heads. Then you got us going, and five minutes after slugging our music, we were drained. They’d sort of look at us and say, “God, you do that all night?”
RF: So with the Beatles you felt much more a part of a unit.
PB: You couldn’t single anyone out at that time. Our delivery was a group delivery. Everyone contributed to it and it was a combination of events, the drive, the flair, the musical calibre, everything sort of went together and that was the Beatles.
RF: When you joined them, they had already worked up their material. Did they tell you what they wanted on drums or let you just do what you felt?
PB: The one thing about the Beatles was that everyone contributed in his own right. We’d sit down, and I, as drummer, would listen to it and decide what the rhythm was, and, of course if it didn’t sound right, I’d change it around. But no one sat down and said, “Okay, let’s do an eight-bar boogie or a shuffle beat” or something like that. You did what you felt was right. It was always a group decision.
RF: So then Brian Epstein became involved.
PB: Right. We got back to Liverpool and brought back our first record, “My Bonnie,” which, by the way, was not by the Beatles. It was by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. Fans from the Cavern went down to Brian Epstein’s record store and made inquiries for the record, and Brian said he would check into it. His store was 50 yards from the Cavern, so he went down and saw us, liked what he saw, and a couple of days later, he asked to see us in his office. He said he’d like to become our manager. He was quite straight about it, because he said, “I have no idea how to manage a group. I’m a good businessman, I know records, I’m financially well off, and I have a good reputation in Liverpool.” About this time, though, we were looking for someone who could possibly do a little bit more for us, so the group decision was made that we would take him on as manager.
RF: Accounts have it that there were times when you were sick and Ringo filled in for you. Is that accurate?
PB: There were two occasions. One I had the flu and the other I had to go to court. Things get misrepresented sometimes, and the impression has been gotten that I was always sick or something and Ringo was the stand-by drummer. There were only those two occasions.
RF: After the two years with them, you were let go. How did that come about?
PB: Well, it came out of the blue. We had played the Cavern the night before and just as I was on my way home, Brian came up to me and said he’d like to see me in the office the next day. This didn’t mean any great shakes to me simply because of the fact that I had been called in numerous times. Because prior to Brian’s taking over, I had handled the business side of the group—done the booking, talked to people, decided where we were playing and what the price should be—so I thought it was to talk about that. I went down there about 10:00 the next morning, but I could tell by looking at Brian, he wasn’t the same cool, collected person he always was. He was agitated and a bit apprehensive. He talked around it for about three or four minutes, so I finally said, “Let me have it,” and he said, “I’ve got bad news for you, Pete. The boys want you out and they want Ringo Starr in.” Well, that was the first I had heard about it and I was completely shocked after being with the group for two years. I was struggling for things to say, but I just couldn’t get my head to work. It just went numb up there. What the hell was going on? And I asked what the reason for it was. He said, “Well, the boys feel that Ringo is a better drummer than you,” which, at the time, didn’t make sense because I was equally as good, if not better than Ringo as a drummer. I’ve always been adamant about that.
RF: So what did you think the reason was?
PB: At the time, I couldn’t think. It was a case of “Does Ringo know about it? Have they contacted Ringo?” He told me it had been all arranged and that Ringo would join the band Saturday night, which meant everything had been signed, sealed and delivered, so to speak, and it had just been left up to Brian to be the hit man for the job. As far as the reason for it, a lot of people said, “You weren’t aware of it at the time, Pete, but you were becoming too popular and you were starting to overshadow the other three.”
RF: Did you try to talk to them or get them on the phone?
PB: The funny thing was, that while Brian was attempting to tell me in his office, there was a phone call from Paul who asked if I had been told yet and Brian said, “No, I haven’t told him yet,” and the phone went down. Because they hadn’t had the decency to be in the office and the way it was done, I felt I didn’t want anything to do with them. I met them on two occasions after that. I stayed away from the local scene for about three or four weeks to get my head together, trying to work things out for myself, and I finally got an offer to join Lee Curtis and the All Stars, which had a good reputation at the time. They weren’t the Beatles, but I said okay. So very shortly after I was kicked out, the Beatles were top of the bill on two occasions where we had to perform second on the bill. As we were coming off stage, they were going on stage and there was nothing said, just stone silence. From that day until this, I have never seen them.
RF: Trying to put that in perspective, other musicians lose or leave gigs and go onto other bands. You couldn’t possibly know what the magnitude of the Beatles was yet, so why was it so devastating at the time? Or did you foresee the future they were going to have?
PB: It sounds big-headed, but it was an inner belief that somewhere along the line, we were going to break through; we were going to be the Liverpool group who made it to the big time, which was a hard thing to do in those days because London was the Mecca of the recording industry. With our own belief, if we had just gone into the English charts with a couple of number ones, we’d have said, “We’re rock stars; we’re up there.” I don’t think even they, themselves, realized, as you said, that they would become the next phenomenon after Elvis Presley. What caused a lot of grief to me was, okay, they were top dogs in Liverpool. I put a lot of hard time into it, two years with very long hours in nightclubs and I had done a lot for the group, and by this time, we had landed a recording contract with EMI.
RF: When had you gotten that?
PB: When we were at the Star Club in Germany, April, 1962, Brian told us that we had gotten the EMI contract, which was a big label in England. So things were going well. We had been under Brian for six months, he had landed us a recording contract, we were getting good play doing radio shows, a couple of TV spots, and things were moving along nicely. We had been down to EMI and laid down some of the tracks which were going to be initially recorded and we were to go back at a later date and put the finishing touches to it.
RF: Which tunes were those?
PB: That was “Love Me Do.” And consequently, in between going back to EMI and putting the finishing touches on “Love Me Do,” I was axed. “Love Me Do” went into the charts and away they went.
RF: Did you lose interest in music after that?
PB: No, I think in my own sort of sweet way, it made me more determined to persevere. “Okay, I should have been part of it, but I’ve got to forget about that incident and try to just keep on going,” and that’s what I tried to do.
RF: You stayed with Lee Curtis for about a year?
PB: Yes. Lee Curtis and the All Stars was a different kind of group in that it was two acts, in a sense. The All Stars went on first and they were an act in their own right, and then Lee would come on for the second part of the show as the frontline singer, but we found things weren’t working too well. We found that our manager was spending a lot of time with Lee as opposed to us and we weren’t getting the attention we should have. So the boys came to me one night and said, “Pete, if we break away, would you be interested in taking over leadership?” So I said yes, as long as it was a group decision and we laid it on the line and told him exactly what we were going to do and not just walk out overnight and leave him in the lurch, because I knew how that felt. So we split from Lee.
RF: That was a four-piece group. What kind of music were you doing?
PB: The typical music that was happening at that time; a lot of Motown soul and your rock stuff. But we prided ourselves that our material was good, and we also played some original tunes.
RF: That was the Pete Best Four. When did you add the horns and become the Pete Best Combo?
PB: I had the offer to go to America and record, and by this time, I wanted a bigger sound. A lot of the groups were the conventional guitar line-up, either three guitars and a drummer or two guitars, an organ and a drummer, or a variation thereof. So I decided I wanted a bigger sound. A lot of the American music had horns and I wanted a good deep gutsy sax section, so I took on a baritone and a tenor and blew the sound up a bit more.
RF: Were you still using the Premier set you had?
PB: No. While it was a great-sounding kit, like everything else, there comes a time when you say, “I want a better kit,” so I went out and got myself a Ludwig.
RF: Ludwig was extremely popular at that time.
PB: Back in England, there was the likes of Premier and Ajax and a couple of smaller companies, but Ludwig was the big one at the time. In those days, if you had a Ludwig drumset, that was it!
RF: Did you expand your set?
PB: I added more cymbals and doubled up on the toms, even though on stage I used only one tom. Sometimes in the studio I’d use two so it would give me more sound.
RF: What happened to the recording contract in the U.S.?
PB: We recorded in New York, did a tour of the States and Canada, and at this time, because so much English orientation was coming into the States and not many American artists going over to England, the musicians’ union decided it could only be on an exchange basis. That meant swapping a named artist for a named artist, and I got caught up in the middle of that mess. They said it was okay for me to stay, but the rest of the band had to go back, and by this time, I had been with them for four years and I couldn’t do that. So we went back home and found that having been away for six months, things had changed. Back home, you had to be there, on top of the situation, and in a way, we had sort of burned our bridges because we said that if things worked out in the States, we’d stay there. But it wasn’t meant to be. We persevered for another twelve months, but time was running out for me. It got to be 1968, and to be quite honest, we were finding it hard to make a living, not because we weren’t a good band, but there were so many bands. Places where we had played before had changed and there was a whole musical change coming in. So in 1968, af ter talking to the rest of the guys, I decided that I was going to step out. By then I was married with one daughter.
RF: So there were other responsibilities in your life?
PB: Yeah. If you’re single, you’re more free to persevere and take a few more knocks. But I had to take my family in consideration and that’s what I did.
RF: Do you miss music?
PB: Let’s put it this way: I’ve put it to one side. When I left show business, I knew the only way to stay clear of it was to totally suppress it. It had to be a clean break. Sure, I still listen to music and my feet still tap, but I have a lot of reservations about actually going back into it. I’d have to give it a great deal of thought.
RF: Do you still have your drums?
PB: I’ve still got them, but the funny thing is that about four years ago, my youngest brother, who is only 20, got bit by the drum bug. I don’t know if it came from me—maybe some of my blood went into his—but he asked if I would teach him. I still had my kit in the cellar of my mother’s house and had taken very good care of it, so I told him I would teach him the basics, but I wouldn’t tell him to do it this way or that way. He had to pick up his own style and develop it from there. Consequently, now he’s got a great reputation in Liverpool as an up-and-coming drummer and he works hard at it. When he first started, he was 15 or 16 and he put a lot of time into it and I could see him improving. I taught him a few things like rolls, paradiddles, bass drum technique and that type of thing, and once he got it together and his syncopation was going well, he mastered it. He has a semi-pro group called What For that plays around Liverpool, and sometimes I go down to see him and I’m very impressed.
RF: So what happened after you left music?
PB: I thought it would be easy to get a job. I had been to high school, so I had the educational qualifications, but when I filled in the job applications, it asked what I had done since leaving school. I had to say, “Oh, nine years in show business, a drummer in groups, etc., etc.” They figured that having been in show business, I’d spend two weeks at the job and then be bit by the bug again. That happened so many times and I would say, “Look, I’ve turned over a new leaf. Give me the job!” But they just felt I’d leave them quickly. Finally an opportunity came along to work at a bakery as a laborer, which meant a lot of hard hours, but there was a wage at the end of it, so I figured I’d take it and prove that I could stay with it. I slugged away at that for about 12 months and then a position came up to work for the government and I’ve been there ever since.
RF: Many musicians have been, or will be, in a situation where they are a part of a group and just as something is happening, they are either fired or leave. Is there a philosophy that you adopted to get through the painful disappointments and help you accept the way things turned out?
PB: If it’s something you want to do, then you do it. I think a lot of it is self-motivation and inner determination. If you want to prove a point or keep going with something you feel is your forte, it’s no good going into it blase about it. You’ve got to say, “I’m going to work at it, and persevere.” If it’s meant to be, with a lot of hard work and good luck, if that break comes, you’ve got to take it. You don’t get many opportunities in your life and when you get a bite of the cherry for the second time, or possibly even the first, make sure you take a good chunk out of it and hang onto it as long as possible and work at it.
RF: Do you have fond memories?
PB: What happened to me still doesn’t take away from my own memories that I had a lot of fun times with the group. That’s a part of me where I can sort of turn around and say, “Okay, yeah, I was a part of the Beatles.” Plus, I had a lot of fun in show business after that. It’s a good business to be in as long as you’re prepared for the rough times. You’ve got to be able to take the knocks, and sometimes you’ve got to be able to give the knocks as well. As long as you’re strong in character, you can have a lot of fun.