For 40 years, Pete Best has been known as the world's most famous sacking victim, the man dismissed by the Beatles when they were on the very cusp of becoming the most successful group of all time. Th
For 40 years, Pete Best has been known as the world's most famous sacking victim, the man dismissed by the Beatles when they were on the very cusp of becoming the most successful group of all time. There is more to the Pete Best story, though, than being the-drummer-before-Ringo: his family provided the setting and backdrop for the band's crucial formative days.
The Casbah Club, run by Best's mother, hosted the first joint public performance by the nucleus of the Beatles and was, in Best's words, "The Cavern before the Cavern." A new book by his brother Roag Best, "The Beatles: The True Beginnings" (Spine Books, England), finally sheds some light on this lesser-known aspect of the Fab Four's story.
Though working class, the Best family lived in 20-room Victorian house set on an acre in the Liverpool suburb of West Derby. Only the owner of such a building could have come up with the idea that Best's mother Mona did when, in early 1959, the family watched a television documentary about the famous Two I's coffee bar in London, where several U.K pop idols were reputed to have been discovered. "She just turned round after seeing this program and said, 'Be a good idea to open a coffee club in the basement'," says Best. "We were totally overjoyed with this. They were the in-thing. She set a date in stone as regards when the club would open, and that was August 29th, 1959."
That opening night is of huge historical importance, for it marked the first public appearance of the reconstituted local band the Quarrymen. Ken Brown played alongside fellow guitarists John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison -- in effect the first-ever Beatles performance.
There was no bass or drums, Best reveals. "It was all guitars," he says. "They weren't expensive guitars. They were electric, but they went through one amplifier. And it wasn't the biggest of amplifiers but regardless of that they still managed to put on this incredible show. I watched them avidly. I'd heard them practicing, because they'd had a couple of rehearsals before that particular opening night and they'd helped decorate the club. The atmosphere was fantastic. The banter... the rapport they had with the crowd. And the music they played: the type of music, the harmonies they were singing, the choice of material. Even then, I thought to myself, 'There's something special about that.'"
The Casbah would go from strength to strength. "In its heyday there were seven bands on a week and every major band and every up-and-coming band played the Casbah," says Best. "It was the Casbah which was the catalyst for the Mersey sound." Amazingly, the club -- which the Quarrymen/Silver Beatles/Beatles played several dozen times -- was big enough to accommodate (including overspill into the grounds) more than a thousand people. Sort of. "By today's regulations, it would hold 300 max," explains Best.
Before long, Best was drumming in a band of his own called the Blackjacks. However, a career in music was far from his mind. "At that stage my intentions were to go to teacher training college," he admits. "I was going to become a language master because I'd studied that in school." However, when the Silver Beatles (as the Quarrymen had become) were offered a month's residency in a German club, life took an unexpected turn for Best, when McCartney rang him to ask if he was interested. "We had the offer for a month in Germany and then it turned out to be five months and then it turned out to be two years," Best reflects. "Once I'd tasted the long hours and the adrenaline was flowing, I wasn't going to go back to teacher training college."
The Silver Beatles now had a bassist in Stuart Sutcliffe (whose recruitment took place in the Casbah and which Best bore witness to). Best claims Sutcliffe's musical abilities have been unjustly maligned: "A lot of people tend to think of Stu [that] he could plunk the bass but that was about all. It's only when you play with other bass players afterwards that you realize there are better bass players around but what he gave was 200%." Best himself changed the band's sound with his powerhouse drumming style. "I felt the engine room was lacking a little bit as regards drive and consequently I started to do things," he says. As well as keeping the bass drum pedal moving constantly, he was "doubling up on the snare drum, so instead of just playing off-shots, single shots, I was playing exactly the same with my left hand as what I was doing with the right."
By the time the band returned to its hometown, it was known simply as the Beatles, and the grueling seven-to-eight hour stage shows had honed it into a fearsomely efficient unit. "We just did exactly the same thing which we'd done in Germany, but it just blew people away," he says. "[The way I was] drumming, to the other drummers in Liverpool, it was like 'What the hell is he playing?' and they tried to copy that style." Not only was Best's style -- nicknamed the Atom Beat on Merseyside -- widely imitated but the band's unusually gritty repertoire was plundered. It was because of the latter that the most celebrated songwriting team of all time -- Lennon and McCartney -- began to develop its craft.
"For them to actually turn round and say, 'Okay, here's a song which we've written ourselves' to the kids in the audience, it's like: 'wow,'" Best says. "The caliber of the material was excellent. I'm talking about 'Like Dreamers Do', 'Love of the Loved' ... the very early ones which were recorded and became gigantic hits for people afterwards."
With their performances at the Cavern -- which became the city's top music venue after pregnancy forced Mona Best to close the Casbah -- and two more trips to Germany, the Beatles became the toast of Liverpool and Hamburg. Their signing to a management contract by local entrepreneur Brian Epstein and acceptance by EMI subsidiary Parlophone is legendary, as is Best's sacking in August 1962.
This dismissal caused fury in Liverpool, where Best was far and away the most popular Beatle. He says, "The funny thing is, I was never consciously aware of the fact that I was supposed to be the 'heartthrob' of the band. It was only after the dismissal [that] I suddenly realized with the reaction from the fans that I'd been that popular. It was very heartwarming but it was too late to do anything." Many on Merseyside swear to this day that in terms of stated or rumored reasons for his firing, none ring as true simple jealousy.
Best says, "Every conceivable angle has been developed but some of the basic ones which came out initially -- the hairstyle -- never got asked. If you look at me, I've gone into leathers, I've gone into suits, wore cowboy boots, I've gown my hair down the back of me neck. I've done everything they wanted me to do. We all had Tony Curtis/Elvis Presley/James Dean haircuts when we were younger. They changed. If they'd have asked me, I'd have changed. Why would I stop? [As for] not being a good enough drummer, I've always turned round and rejected that one quite vociferously simply because of the fact that I was reputed to be one of the best drummers in Liverpool. And anti-social? Well, I can talk the hind legs off a donkey if I want to. So a lot of the things don't add up, but I wasn't there. I didn't know what the true allegations behind the dismissal were. Maybe I never will. There's only a few people now who are still alive who know those reasons."
Though Best attempted suicide in 1965, he says, "I've never thought that it was a bad thing that I was in the Beatles. I've always looked back on that, regardless of what happened, as being two very exciting years. We conquered frontiers. We grew in musicianship. It was a privilege to be part of the band." Life has not been too bad for Best since. He enjoyed a successful career in civil service, raised a family, qualified for early retirement, and made millions from the Beatles' "Anthology One" album, which featured 12 tracks on which he drummed. He now tours the world in his own eponymous band.
The new book coincides with the re-opening of the Casbah Club as a music venue and shrine to the Beatles. Undisturbed for decades, its refurbishing uncovered eerie reminders of the immortals who once patronized its portals. "It was very much their club," Best says of his former colleagues. "John had painted the Aztec ceiling. Paul painted the Rainbow ceiling. George painted the stars in the coffee bar along with myself and Ken Brown. The beauty of it is, the Casbah still stands with all those things as it closed its doors 40 years ago."