We were lucky enough to sit down with one of the founding members of one of the most legendary bands of all time, The Beatles, as we were granted some time with the unfavourably named “forgotten Beatle” Pete Best. Joining the band at a pivotal moment in their career, Best would provide a stable foundation for the band to grow before being replaced by Ringo Starr.
After The Beatles, the drummer would go on to be a part of many notable acts and also create his own group with The Pete Best Band. With such an opportunity for a bitter view on the band, we were thrilled to find an engaging, excited and genuinely caring artist who is happy to reflect on his moment in the history books of popular culture as part of a cultivated and varied career.
Although John Lennon is regarded as furnace from which the steel of The Beatles was forged. Yet, it was Paul McCartney who influenced many of the band’s musical pathways and put those mechanical pieces together. He suggested the conceptual works Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (both 1967), he assembled the cascading tape loops on the cavernous Tomorrow Never Knows and wrote the fiery guitar solos that burned through ‘Another Girl’, ‘Taxman’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’. It was McCartney who invited guitarist George Harrison to join Lennon’s retinue, just as it was McCartney who searched the bustling scene for a permanent sticks-man in 1960.
“You’re correct” Pete Best replies. “It was Paul who made the phone call. They needed a drummer to go to Germany and he knew I played drums. He’d seen me play drums with The Black Jacks, my own band. So he phoned me and basically I got the offer to go to Germany. How’d you feel about sitting in, on the skins? Fine, I said I’ll check it out with my parents and my own band.”
After getting the nod from his bandmates, his parents also liberally pushed Best towards his goals. “Phoned him back and he said, “you got to do an audition”. I started laughing, no one auditioned in those days, you just jumped from band to band. So I went down to the Wyvern Club, we blasted out about six numbers. Five minutes after that, they said: “you’re in Pete!”
Back to 2020 and we’re sitting in Dublin’s ‘Lost Lane’. The two of us are talking about events that happened nearly sixty years ago that have formed the modern day rock lexis. When the interview ends, I tell brother/manager Roag Best that I feel like I’ve just spoken to a Beatle. Roag laughs resonantly; something tells me this isn’t the first time he’s heard this joke. Yet there’s nothing sardonic about the statement. Pete Best has as much a claim to Beatle citizenship as McCartney does.
Before there was “John, Paul, George and Ringo”, fans screamed for “John, Paul, George and Pete”. Yes, it was Ringo Starr’s galloping cymbal work that delighted fans from Please Please Me (1963) to Abbey Road (1969) , but it was Pete’s backbeat that led to this unprecedented body of work. Pete was also the drummer who played on the January 1962 Decca audition, a fifteen song set that boasts three early Lennon-McCartney songs in its listing.
“Cilla’s version [‘Love of The Loved’] was very commercial” Pete chuckles. “Very commercial. It’s a lot different to the way we played it. Well, no, it’s not that different actually, but it was quite different hearing a girl singer. It was a good number for her to cut her teeth in, I think it was one of her first singles. We played ‘Hello Little Girl’ on stage lots of times, before it got onto Decca. When we started introducing recent material, it went down well with the kids. They loved it. Again, it showed in a way how versatile The Beatles were. We weren’t just a rock n roll band.”
Pete’s in fine form, happy to laugh at memories and moments past. Pete and Roag Best are both involved with Liverpool’s Magical Beatles Museum, a centre-piece that celebrates “The Fab Five’s” (including bass playing art student Stuart Sutcliffe) earliest triumphs. But The Beatles connection wasn’t always the easiest one to live by. Pete Best, a drummer for a number of post Beatle units, had seemingly hung up his sticks in the late sixties. It was Roag, serving a third function as a drummer, who helped draw him back to the live stage.
“It was something we always wanted to do” Pete attests. “When I got drawn back into show-business, which was in ’88, the deal I made was I’ll pick my own musicians. My mother was still alive and it would be great for younger brother Roag, who had his own band at the time, to get up on stage. My mother could see the eldest lad and youngest lad, both drummers playing onstage at the same time. It went down such a treat.”
Not to be overwhelmed by sentimentality, ever the professional Best explained the opportunity two percussionists offered a band, “The reason for having two drummers is if I’m doing straight tempo, he’s doing percussion. If I’m doing percussion work, he’s doing straight tempo. Instead of having a percussion section, a percussion drummer.”
Best’s ties to popular music go back to The Beatles foray in Hamburg. Five young Liverpool lads ( George Harrison wasn’t even eighteen at the time) now found themselves amidst a decadent array of Red Light districts, bohemian associates and grueling stage-sets. The band threw themselves into their work, setting an ethic that marked them out as something exceptionally unique.
“The fact that we were playing six, seven hours for six, seven nights a week- solid, continuous! We went from being a very mediocre band to being this prolific rock n roll band, which developed a style, a savageness to the music. When we came back from Germany to Liverpool, kids in Liverpool had never seen anything like this before! That was the whole personification of The Beatles. It just grew from there. Dance halls were seeing things they’d never seen in twenty odd years. Kids were running to the front of the stage. Curtains were getting ripped down! It was like Bill Haley again.”
Hamburg, like much of The Beatles oeuvre, has undergone sensationalistic re-tellings. The band’s original rhythm section, similarly, has been the subject of misdirected attribution. “Stu was a rock n roll bass player. Like a lot of media, I suffered the same thing, they said he was ousted from the band because he wasn’t a good bass player. Rock n roll was very simple in those days. He was a good rock n roll player, he played simple bass, but for a drummer, what he played was great to lock into. To me, he wasn’t brilliant, but he wasn’t bad.”
Yet with such talent in the band in the shape of a young Paul McCartney competition for a place in the band was tough. “Paul was a natural musician, he was multi-talented. He could play piano, banjo, you name it. It seemed natural for him when Stu went for Paul to take on the bass role. Because of his musical ability, he would provide a better bass line than what Stu did. There was an improvement, but it didn’t add to the fact that Stu was a bad bass player!”
Instead, Sutcliffe was an exceptional painter. He died at the agonisingly young age of twenty one but left behind an impasto that proved a talent decades beyond his reach. “That goes without saying” Pete attests. “John held Stu in total respect as regards an artist, simply because of the fact he’d gone through art school, he realized what Stu’s talent was compared to his own.”
It’s nice to hear how positive his perspective is. Though his dismissal in 1962 was undoubtedly a difficult one, he speaks favourably of The Beatles’ chief songwriters. When I ask if he was closer to Lennon or McCartney, his answer is resolute. “John. Don’t get me wrong. I became friends with all of the band but became closest to John. At the same time, regardless of the many things he called me afterward, in interviews and things like that, I still had respect for him. But John and I used to prop on at the bars, we were the ones standing up late in Germany. I can tell you, John was not what the public saw. Not the sardonic, twisted, ironic John, but he very much had a tender, loving side. That came out. To me, you put those two entities together and it made this great guy”.
Pete’s Liverpudlian drawl is as pronounced as ever. His musical resumé includes sixties band Lee Curtis and The All Stars. Bandleader Curtis (born Pete Flannery) had a baritone comparable to that of a British Elvis. “That was the band I joined after The Beatles. I had lots of offers to join different bands. Joe Flannery, Pete’s brother, who was the manager turned around and said: “I’d like you to join”. I said I’d think about it. I sent a few spies out to watch them. They all came back and said, “it’s a good little band”. It is a note of pride for Best who remembers after taking the band “out of the doldrums” that the group “ended up being second to The Beatles in The Merseybeat poll. You can’t get any closer than that!”
With their thumping R ‘N B sound, Lee Curtis and The All Stars sounded exhilarating both on stage and record. “A very underrated singer” Pete admits. “Very underrated, but his vocal range was very, very good. But when Lee got a record contract from Decca, he didn’t use us. Then we did a record with him called Let’s Stomp. That basically put us on the map. But it became quite evident that Joe was only interested in pushing Lee. The boys came to me and said, “for our sake, would you break away and front the band?” I turned around and said, “if that’s what you want us to do”. So that’s the reason why we broke, so we could get our own self-identity. I went to my mother Mo, she managed bands before, so she seemed natural to manage us”.
They became The Pete Best Combo. In 1964, they toured the US and Canada, while in 1966 Pete released the deliciously titled Best Of The Beatles. A collation of psychedelic Byrd like rockers, the album sits as a 180 degree turn around from 2008’s reflective Hayman’s Green. A diaphanous walk through the paintings, pathways, and positions the “real capital of Ireland” holds on its subjects, the album showed a thoughtful progression to the drummer’s canon. It holds an inspired dig at his former bandmates.
“When The Anthology came out, that was the story of The Beatles” Pete knowingly laughs. “Because the fact they’d taken my head off the front cover [chuckles]. We talked about it all, like every band we wanted to record our own material. And the boys and myself thought it would be a good idea to put my anthology into music.”
The drummer and bandleader continued, “The reason we called it Hayman’s Green is simply the fact that’s where it emanated from. The reason my head is on the front is my little payback taking my head off your anthology and putting my head back on my anthology. But I’m certain you’ve already sussed that one out!”
Pete and Roag are returning to Ireland in March. Pete, like McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, has family ties to the isle. He’s returning to Lost Lane to speak to the many fans.“[It’ll be] very candid, very humorous. Talking about my days with The Beatles, talking about my days after The Beatles. No holds barred. We talk about everything and anything. What I enjoy, as much as me talking and entertaining, is opening to the public. We do a questions and answers section.”
In the words of another Beatle, a splendid time is guaranteed for all!
Pete Best will appear at the “Audience With” shows in Ireland at the River House Hotel, Wexford (March 27th) and the Lost Lane, Dublin (March 29th)