How ruthless were The Beatles – if at all?
Were they really just four lovable mop tops who loved shouting “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” to every “expert” who wanted to help them?
Until they got lucky?
Or merely uncompromising? No matter what the consequences might be?
The Beatles were perceived in various ways in the early days, both behind the scenes and in public: “charming”, “witty”, “ruthless”, “dangerous”.
But who were they really?
How ruthless did they have to be to carve out that world-shaking career?
And what were the repercussions for others?
Let’s take a look.
1. The love you make. The price you pay
Stars weren’t born back in the day, they were formed. And Larry Parnes was the UK’s top star-maker. No compromises, no questions.
He was the woodcarver. The popstar was Pinocchio.
Your name would be chosen. Your hairstyle. Your image. Your songs. Potential stars were preened, packaged, and sold.
But not pampered. They did what they were told – sometimes without royalties. How ruthless was he? Extremely.
His biggest star was Liverpool’s Billy Fury, whose album “The Sound of Fury” is today regarded as one of the most important Rock ‘n Roll records produced in the UK.
Fury wrote the songs. However, rather than encourage him, Parnes convinced him to record covers, to guarantee hits in the accepted tradition.
Fury felt he had no choice – and we all paid the price.
Then Parnes met The Beatles.
2. Nowhere men to star-maker – “Get stuffed!”
When Parnes announced that he was coming to Liverpool, to audition groups to play backup for Billy Fury in an upcoming tour, the reaction was huge.
Especially when he added that Billy Fury would be attending.
For working-class kids in the North of England, this was the chance of a lifetime.
Allan Williams, The Beatles’ first manager, told the boys about it – and they jumped.
Turning up scruffy and unprepared, with a temp drummer who was late, they still managed to pass muster – according to Williams.
He claimed that Parnes and Billy Fury liked “The Silver Beetles” and wanted to sign them.
On one condition.
John’s best friend, Stu Sutcliffe, was bassist in the group. He kept his back to the audience to hide the fact he couldn’t play. Not good in a superstar’s support act.
He had to go.
One act of ruthlessness, one ticket to the top.
John Lennon’s “curt response” – apparently backed up without a note of dissension from McCartney or Harrison – ended their big chance.
Stu stayed. No compromises, no questions.
The Beatles walked out on Larry Parnes and Billy Fury.
Parnes later denied Williams’ account, perhaps conveniently blaming the temp drummer.
Either way, Williams did later manage to get The Beatles onto one of Parnes’ low-level touring tickets: Johnny Gentle’s Tour of Scotland.
So did The Beatles really tell Britain’s biggest star-maker, in front of the great Billy Fury, where to get off?
We do know that Johnny Gentle later encouraged Parnes to sign The Beatles; and that Parnes refused. Possibly because he knew he wouldn’t be able to control them.
In early 1962, Parnes also apparently turned down a chance to co-promote The Beatles’ concerts.
A decision that, if true, cost him millions.
When on the verge of stardom, The Beatles had no qualms about firing their drummer, Pete Best, despite his huge following of female fans in Liverpool, and the upset it would cause.
But that was their idea.
Within a couple of years, Beatlemania had dropped like an atom bomb on Larry Parnes’ stable of stars, and assigned the star-maker and his way of doing business to history.
The King was down. The game was on.
3. Prodigies to producer – “That song is crap!”
Still, they did get the attention of a Liverpool record store manager named Brian Epstein.
He also wanted them to compromise, so they did.
By the time Epstein told The Beatles they should replace their leather outfits with tailored suits, they had allowed Stu Sutcliffe’s girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, to turn their greasy rocker quiffs into floppy fringes.
This was more about curiosity than compromise. And Paul McCartney soon realized how great the suits would look with the new hairstyles.
For Lennon, it came down to Beatle democracy; but he probably knew McCartney was right.
With that agreed, they were ready to be rejected again.
Dick Rowe of Decca Records was all about the data. After their audition, he uttered the now immortal words:
“Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.”
No compromises, no questions.
A ruthless business decision that went down in history as one of the worst days anyone ever had at the office.
Rowe, of course, later denied Epstein’s version.
Not that The Beatles minded. By this stage, they felt sorry for anybody silly enough to reject them.
So, with a later introduction and much encouragement from a now-famous George Harrison, Dick Rowe said “Yes!” to The Rolling Stones.
Next in line was George Martin of Parlophone, EMI. Happily, Martin believed in following his instincts rather than just data and industry trends.
So he watched and listened. Then he signed them.
For their part, The Beatles were in awe. They didn’t know that EMI considered Parlophone a dumping ground for novelty trash.
To George Martin, The Beatles were popstars, and popstars needed professional songwriters.
He went looking for The Beatles’ first #1.
And he found it. Or thought he did: “How Do You Do It?” by Mitch Murray.
“This is it!” he told music publisher, Dick James. “This will make The Beatles a household name!”
The Beatles dutifully recorded it – and Martin was delighted.
Then they went quiet.
Lennon spoke up first. “I have to tell you, George,” he said. “We think this song is crap.”
Not only was Lennon’s statement outrageous, it was an assault on Martin’s ability and authority.
An act of ruthlessness? Or just another act of career suicide?
But The Beatles weren’t challenging Martin’s ability or authority. Lennon knew the song was good really.
They all knew it would be a hit.
Just not their hit.
They wrote those.
“Show me something as good as that and we’ll record it!” he boomed at Lennon.
Lennon and McCartney looked at each other and shrugged.
Ultimately, Martin allowed The Beatles to release their own song “Love Me Do” – possibly because he knew Brian Epstein intended to purchase 10,000 copies himself, to ensure a chart placing and kickstart their careers.
Which he did, in politely ruthless fashion.
The follow-up “Please Please Me” was a John song, written in the style of Roy Orbison. They sang it Orbison style, but Martin heard it Beatles’ style.
By the time they were done recording, Martin made his now-famous announcement:
“Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record.”
He was right. (Sort of.)
4. Ruthlessness and repercussions – British invasion
In the States, many American acts went the same way as Parnes and his stars.
The Beatles changed everything.
And everything they did had repercussions.
After they rejected Martin’s choice of song, it was given to another Liverpool group, “Gerry and the Pacemakers”.
Produced by Martin, this version of “How Do You Do It?” shot to the #1 position in the UK, technically beating The Beatles to the #1 spot. (“Please Please Me” hit #2 on the Record Retailer chart and #1 on the New Musical Express and Melody Maker charts.)
Becoming part of “The British Invasion” the song broke the Top 10 in North America in the summer of 1964.
It was replaced at the top in the UK by The Beatles’ third single “From Me to You”, which hit the #1 position and stayed there for seven weeks. From here, The Beatles never looked back.
Arguably, the four mop tops kickstarted (at least) four industries:
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Mersey Sound, The British Invasion.
The Beatles destroyed and started a lot of careers.
When they decided to stop touring, they were informed that they were destroying their own.
All the data spoke to it. Industry reality. No way round it.
But The Beatles had other ideas.
A lot of them.
One was to create pop music’s most influential masterpiece, while apparently failing to understand that their careers were over.
So what about your career?
5. No compromises, No questions: Your career
If you had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, could you turn it down on principle?
If an authority figure/expert told you to do something “for your own good”, could you be ruthless enough to respond:
“No – that doesn’t work for me.”
The Beatles did this all the time, regardless of how unpopular or outrageous.
But only in specific circumstances. If a compromise suited them, they’d make it.
In fact, “uncompromising” may be the better word to use in many of these instances than the word “ruthless”.
Larry Parnes and Dick Rowe also had their “No compromises, no questions” attitudes.
In the former’s case, these were ego-based and ended his reign; in the latter’s, a crushing error led to professional redemption.
The Beatles had an amazing grasp of who they were and what they wanted.
If something felt wrong on principle, it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen.
So let’s end with The Beatles’ top five “no compromises, no questions” hits.
Top 5 things nobody could get The Beatles to do:
- Dump their own people – unless it was their idea.
- Release singles they hadn’t written – unless it was their idea.
- Fill their albums with singles to milk cash from kids.
- Go to the US until they had a hit single there.
- Play to segregated audiences in the US.
Ruthless little mop tops.
Sources: The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines – published by McCraw-Hill, 1983; Here, There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey – published by Gotham Books, 2006; Shout by Philip Norman – published by MJF books, 1981; John Lennon – The Life by Philip Norman – published by Ecco Press, 2008. Images: Shutterstock.